SwansI attended Snohomish County’s Focus on Farming conference last week. I sat in on a class on water rights, which turned out to be interesting to me. I wasn’t sure if it would be useful, as the description sounded like it would be focused on people who have water rights permits, which we do not. But often looking at all the water coming out of several drainpipes in our hillside, I’ve wondered, can we use this for something?

I’d read somewhere before about the issue of waters of the state– that all rainwater runoff, surface water and groundwater is considered public property, and not something you can just use. I’d even read that rain barrels which collect rain runoff from residential roofs are law-breaking paraphernalia in many places! Someone sitting next to me in the class had the same impression.

WaterPipeBut it turns out, in Washington, there are actually quite liberal groundwater usage laws. Groundwater being defined as anything underground, apparently differentiated from surface water that would appear in rivers, ditches and streams. Groundwater is what you get out of a drilled or dug well, and you have to apply for a permit to drill a well these days. But it can also be derived with simple French drains, which probably everybody in the NW has right in their own back yards.

The class instructor was a water rights expert and representative from the Washington Farm Bureau, an organization that lobbies to protect farming rights. I was amazed to learn that, according to RCW 90.44.050, you can withdraw ground water with no permit in these four use cases:

  1. for stock-watering purposes (unlimited),
  2. for the watering of a lawn or of a noncommercial garden not exceeding one-half acre in area (unlimited),
  3. for single or group domestic uses <5,000 gallons a day,
  4. for an industrial purpose <5,000 gallons a day

The speaker said that due to the precedent set by a recent lawsuit, these are cumulative benefits, meaning you don’t have to choose between them, but could take advantage of all four on the same parcel.

There was also a discussion about watering livestock from streams. There is an interesting legal conundrum these days. It’s still legal to let your livestock drink from surface water bodies. But it’s not legal to let them poop in the bodies of water, because that’s considered dumping pollutants. So, the instructor joked, unless they are wearing diapers, you are at risk of illegally contaminating surface water if you let your stock wade at river’s edge. Winking smileMaggieSwimming

It’s also not legal to “divert flow” of surface water to someplace else. The current resolution for many people has been to work with their local NCRS office to install some kind of nose pump watering device, which draws from the river or stream. This, apparently, has been found to be a satisfactory solution by the EPA. Then technically the water isn’t getting permanently or continually diverted, but rather is simulating the stock drinking right out of the stream, using a very long straw. But minus the pooping in or near the stream and eroding the banks. So then everybody’s happy.Open-mouthed smile

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