Frank Jr.: Will the rivers run dry?

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What would it matter if we clean up Puget Sound if the rivers feeding it run dry? We took a small step closer to making sure we always have water in our rivers when King County (Wash.) Judge Jim Rogers struck down a bad piece of state water law.

He ruled that the state Legislature made a mistake in 2003 when it passed Municipal Water Law 1338, which would have let developers hoard water rights for decades.

The problem is that if you added up all of the water rights held throughout Puget Sound today, there wouldn’t be enough water to fulfill them. It’s called over-appropriation, meaning under the state’s outdated water laws people have the legal right to withdraw more water than actually exists.

Before the Legislature passed the Municipal Water Law, water rights owned by developers that went unused eventually reverted to the state. “Use it or lose it” gave the complicated water rights system at least some connection to reality.

But that tether to the real world was cut when the Legislature decided to give developers and cities the same rights to horde their paper water rights until they got around to using them. If they did as this law allowed, it would result in dry riverbeds, much like those southern California has experienced for many years.

Part of saving Puget Sound is making sure there is cool, clean water flowing into it. First we need to ask ourselves how much water the salmon need, and then ask ourselves how much we can take. Striking down Municipal Water Law 1338 was a good start.

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.