New deal provides water for 23,500 NE Wash. homes

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2010 11:53 AM
New deal provides water for 23,500 NE Wash. homes

A new deal will remove water from Sullivan Lake in summer months to help relieve shortages and spur economic development in six counties in a depressed corner of northeastern Washington.

The agreement between the state Department of Ecology and the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District was signed Friday. It calls for the release of 14,000 acre-feet of water from Sullivan Lake each summer, when supplies are most needed.

About two-thirds of the water will be used to supply 23,500 new homes in Pend Oreille, Ferry, Lincoln, Stevens, Okanogan and Douglas counties, which are among the poorest in the state. The homes would add an estimated $1.4 billion to the tax base and some $4 million per year in economic activity, the agency said.

The rest of the water will protect fish and wildlife habitat and recreation uses.

Opportunities to increase water supplies are limited in arid Eastern Washington and often lead to bitter court battles.

"The Sullivan Lake water supply agreement is the latest example of how collaborating on water solutions creates big wins all around, while fighting over diminishing supplies leads nowhere," said Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant.

New jobs and population growth in Eastern Washington depend on reliable water supplies, and the region receives significantly less rain than Western Washington. Seventy to 80 percent of the state's surface water supplies come from mountain snowmelt, which fills Sullivan Lake every spring. Competition for that water has been increasing.

Sullivan Lake is near Metaline Falls, close to the Canadian border, in the Selkirk Mountains. The northeastern portion of the state, dominated by natural resource jobs, has long been among Washington's poorest regions. Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties all have unemployment rates above 10 percent.

In return for the water, the utility district will receive a one-time payment of $14 million from the Columbia River Basin Water Development Account, which will be used to improve the lake's environment.

Efforts to reach a deal started when the state learned that the utility planned to surrender its license to operate the Sullivan Dam hydroelectric project.

The dam was built in 1911 and the power plant operated until 1956. While the utility maintained the power license and the accompanying restrictions on water use, it did not make any electricity at the dam. The decision to surrender the expiring license created an opportunity to change the operations of the dam, the state said.

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"This agreement will ensure that the expenses related to the license surrender of the Sullivan Creek Project are not passed along to our customers in the form of rate increases," said Bob Geddes, the utility district's general manager.

Talks involved the utility, the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Seattle City Light (which operates a nearby dam), state Department of Fish and Wildlife, environmental groups and local residents.

As part of the deal, the Ecology Department is supporting a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would limit the water rights issued from this project to the six northeastern counties. Under current law, water rights would be awarded to whomever is first in line anywhere downstream.



Sullivan Lake project: