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Tribes to exercise water rights

Water, even though we’re surrounded by it, is not an inexhaustible resource in Kitsap County. So the notion that builders should examine development’s effect on the watershed before beginning new construction is obvious.

And there are numerous county codes to ensure this. But it may not be enough.

Kitsap County tribes, which hold “time immemorial” water rights, have warned that the water supply is not keeping pace with the construction rate. Moreover, if the water supply should dwindle to a dangerous level, the tribes will be the first to go to the well.

The topic was addressed last week at a Kitsap Peninsula Watershed Planning Unit meeting but tabled after a short discussion. It is expected to be at the top of the agenda during the committee’s April meeting.

“We don’t want to be the ones who are responsible for shutting off the drinking fountains at the local elementary school,” said Art Schick, water resources program manager for the Suquamish Tribe. “But we want local leaders to act responsibly and not encourage growth when the watershed won’t support it.”

Schick’s warning is clear: During a drought, the tribes will take the water they need before passing it on. So new construction that depends on the runoff from tribal lands should develop alternate strategies, because tribal water rights trump all others.

“It’s clear the water supply is being overappropriated,” Schick said.

To some, the tribe’s warning sounds more like a threat.

“There are times I think our effort here is all for nothing,” said Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners President Vivian Henderson, a member of the committee. “The tribes have veto power over anything we suggest. It’s very discouraging. This is a threat they’re holding over us.”

Committee member Rod Reid acknowledges the veto power, but notes any participating government has the same right. As a result “we need to address this now,” he said, instead of postponing the discussion.

“The tribes have been up-front about their position,” Reid said. “They’ve said, ‘We’ll take part in the planning process but we are not going to lose any water over it.’ They have fired a shot across the bow and you can’t un-ring the bell.”

Reid called the situation a “power play” by the tribes but predicts they could score big in court and that the issue“could be as big as the Boldt decision,” which awarded Native American salmon rights. But such a ruling is years away, he said.

“I’m not arguing whether the tribes have the water rights, only how we’re going to deal with it,” Reid said. “I’d like to see what other areas with in the same situation have done.”

Henderson agreed

“Before we go any further, we need to know what is going to happen,” she said.

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