Chehalis Tribe Pens Opposition to Lewis County Water Banking Proviso


For over a year now, Lewis County has sought to establish a water bank — and they haven’t been laughing all the way there.

The creation of the water bank, which is a collection of water rights that can be used for mitigation in growth and securing access to water, has been a slow process. Late last week, the Chehalis Indian Tribe penned a letter in opposition to language in the Senate budget intended to make the process easier.

At the beginning of the legislative session, the county commissioners pleaded with state lawmakers for help with the process, which requires a willing water rights seller, approval from the state Department of Ecology, contracting legal experts and various other spendy processes. Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, then helped secure some Lewis County-specific language in the state’s budget.

“The budget proviso’s exception is narrowly written to benefit only Lewis County. This sets one county above all others, eliminating many of the carefully-constructed requirements for the banking grant program,” wrote Dustin Klatush, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, in a letter to Braun, Gov. Jay Inslee and various other representatives.

The language would eliminate the county’s need to have its water rights purchased solely within the boundaries of the county itself, which was set there as the commissioners have been eyeing TransAlta’s water rights at the Skookumchuck Dam, which is located upstream of Bucoda in Thurston County.

It would also eliminate the permanent instream flow requirement for fish and wildlife that essentially halts a water rights holder’s ability to take from the river when water nears levels too low for salmon runs, among other things. The Chehalis River is one of only two in Western Washington that is subject to instream flow regulations, as previously reported by The Chronicle.

Ultimately, Klatush argues these changes would establish new policy to significantly impact one county “to the detriment of all other counties” and to “the detriment of the citizens residing in Lewis County.”

Lewis County’s Housing and Infrastructure Specialist Eric Eisenberg said in a Monday morning meeting he felt the letter expressed possible “misunderstanding” of the county’s intention and could likely be addressed.

Eisenberg urged the commissioners not to push off the water banking process to another year given the amount of time and resources that have already been spent toward its establishment and asked that they send a letter back to the Chehalis Tribe explaining the background on the language. But, Commissioner Sean Swope expressed worry that TransAlta may not even be interested in selling water rights to Lewis County.

“They’re not entertaining it,” Swope said, later adding, “They’re very clear with me that they are not interested.”

Therefore, he said, he would have a hard time signing off on a letter with TransAlta specific language. Swope asked that the conversation be moved to the Prosecuting Attorney’s update meeting with the commissioners on Tuesday, but that meeting was canceled shortly before it started.

The Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners, Rieva Lester, told The Chronicle the discussion topics were moved to a Wednesday morning meeting, but would likely be bumped off that agenda, too, as Swope was set to be absent.

As of Tuesday night, Eisenberg said he did not have “anything to add” on whether or not the county will respond to the letter. 

The Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill was passed unanimously by the Senate on March 24 and is currently at the second reading phase in the House.