Watershed Planning

The 1998 Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 2514, codified into RCW 90.82, to set a framework for addressing the State’s water resources issues. RCW 90.82 states:

“The legislature finds that the local development of watershed plans for managing water resources and for protecting existing water rights is vital to both state and local interests. The local development of these plans serves vital local interests by placing it in the hands of people: Who have the greatest knowledge of both the resources and the aspirations of those who live and work in the watershed; and who have the greatest stake in the proper, long-term management resources.  The development of such plans serves the state’s vital interests by ensuring that the state’s water resources are used wisely, by protecting existing water rights, by protecting instream flows for fish and by providing for the economic well-being of the state’s citizenry and communities. Therefore the legislature believes it necessary for units of local government throughout the state to engage in orderly development of these watershed plans.”

The purpose of the 1998 Watershed Management Act (WMA) is to provide a framework for local government, interest groups and citizens to collaboratively identify and solve water related issues in each of the 62 Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs) of Washington State.

The WMA does not require watershed planning but instead enables a group of initiating agencies to:

  • Select a lead agency;
  • Apply for grant funding;
  • Define the scope of the planning; and,
  • Convene a local group called a planning unit for the purpose of conducting watershed planning.

The initiating agencies include all the counties within the WRIA, the largest city, and water purveyor within the WRIA and any Tribe with reservation lands within the watershed. Although an entity’s participation is optimal, participation is not required for watershed planning to proceed.

Under the law, the Planning Unit (PU) has considerable flexibility to determine the planning process, focus on areas or elements of particular importance to local citizens, assess water resources and needs, and recommend management strategies. The WMA identifies four topics that can be addressed within the watershed Technical Assessment and subsequent plan. Water quantity must be addressed if grant funds are accepted. Water quality, habitat and instream flows may be addressed but are optional. The law specifies certain types of information that must be gathered and a range of water resource management strategies that need to be addressed. The law also includes constraints on the activities of planning units. For example, the PU does not have the authority to change existing laws, alter water rights or treaty rights, change treaties, or require any party to take an action unless that party agrees.  Four phases of watershed planning are identified in the WMA:

  • Phase I - Organization
  • Phase II - Assessment
    • Level 1 Assessment: A compilation and review of existing data (within time and budget limitations) relevant to defined objectives. If the Planning Unit decides that the existing data is sufficient to support the management requirements of all or some of the issues, the Planning Unit may choose to skip Level 2 and move on to Level 3 for these issues.
    • Level 2 Assessment: Collection of new data within the time frame of the planning process to fill data gaps and to support decision needs.
    • Level 3 Assessment: Long term monitoring of selected parameters following completion of the initial watershed plan to improve management strategies.
  • Phase III - Planning
    • The WMA calls for a consensus approval of the watershed plan by all members of the PU, or a consensus of the initiating governments and a majority vote by the remaining members of the PU. Following approval by the PU, the WMA calls for a joint session of the legislative bodies of all counties in the watershed to consider the plan. The counties can recommend changes to the plan, but the PU must agree to make the changes for them to be effective. Governmental agencies that are members of the PU do have the ability to veto the plan. Once the plan has been approved by the county legislative bodies and the PU, the county and state agencies are required to implement the plan.
  • Phase IV – Implementation