WENATCHEE — The state Department of Ecology is offering a new fee-based program to speed up the water rights application process, and the Wenatchee Basin will be the first to try it out.
Some 150 water right applicants will get letters inviting them to help hire a consultant who can sort through applications so that water for new applicants can become available. Applicants can then reimburse Ecology for hiring the state-approved contractor to process pending applications.
“It’s a way of actually clearing the books,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology in Yakima.
Contractors will identify the impacts of a new water withdrawal, and whether there is water available that would not encroach on another water user’s rights.
Participation is optional, and those who do not join in will stay in line with other water right applicants, while others move forward with their applications.
“This is a big deal,” said Mike Kaputa, director of the Chelan County Natural Resources Department.
He said the state does not have the money needed to process hundreds of water rights currently pending, so this public-private partnership would allow that to happen.
Statewide, Ecology attempted to reduce the number of pending water right applications, which had rose to more than 7,000 by the end of 2011, Redfield-Wilder said.
A variety of measures were used, and the agency processed 171 voluntary withdrawals and reduced the pending applications by 860 applications. Still, 400 new applications were submitted, resulting in only a net reduction of 460 applications, she said.
Kaputa said the Wenatchee River Basin is taking the first step in this new effort to reduce the backlog after years of watershed planning. “We’re going to be taking care of the people who are in line, and all the water suppliers as well,” he said.
Kaputa said about 150 water right applications are currently pending, including some who are still waiting, and others that many have gone on to other plans, but have not withdrawn their application.
Redfield-Wilder said processing water rights in North Central Washington has been a particular challenge because so much work on watershed planning has already been done, but that work shows there are shortages already.
She said additionally, fish listed through the Endangered Species Act made the formula even more difficult.
If the efforts in the Wenatchee Basin are successful, other parts of the state may join in.
“This is the very first step to see what is the interest out there, how important are these water rights to these projects, and are they willing to explore moving forward in this coordinated way,” Redfield-Wilder said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512