S U R F A C E W A T E R S
Surface waters are freshwater streams, wetlands, ponds lakes and their vegetated riparian buffers. San Juan County's Clean Water Utility protects water quality and quantity by ensuring adequate flows for native fish and wildlife, and reducing nutrient and temperature pollution caused by livestock access, lack of riparian vegetation and other land use activities. Brackish waters of estuaries, lagoons, saltwater marshes and coastal wetlands are also considered surface waters that provide transition habitat to the marine environment.
In some watersheds, surface flows are captured to provide drinking water through local Island water providers.
Improving water quality of surface waters in San Juan County is a major goal of the Environmental Stewardship Department.
What does “improving water quality” mean?
The State of Washington has established surface water quality criteria that support designated uses of those waters for recreation, aquatic life, and human consumption. These criteria establish limits for water temperature, pH, and concentrations of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, bacteria, heavy metals and organic compounds (https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Water-quality/Water-quality-standards). The criteria are designed to keep surface waters clean and healthy. Currently some island lakes and streams exceed these limits. The Environmental Stewardship Department is working to ensure all of the islands’ surface waters meet the criteria.
Why do we care?
When concentrations of nutrients, bacteria, or other contaminants are too high in lakes and streams, contact (e.g., swimming, fishing) with those waters is not safe for humans, their pets, or other animals. Excess nutrients combined with warmer water temperatures can lead to blooms of toxic algae. Salmon can’t survive in streams with high water temperatures and low levels of dissolved oxygen. Delivering high quality stream water to the ocean sustains healthy conditions in the marine nearshore environment, which is critical for survival of juvenile salmon and other species (link to aquatic species page).
What are the threats?
Human actions on land impact water quality. Runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and roofs during storms transports sediments and contaminants to surface waters. Ground-disturbing activities too close to lakes and streams leads to erosion, which delivers sediments and contaminants to surface waters. When livestock have access to surface waters, they can degrade stream banks and channels, and contaminate the water with urine and feces. Tilling and fertilizing fields without adequate streamside buffer strips delivers sediment and excess nutrients to streams. As climate is changing, the islands are experiencing warmer temperatures and more damaging storms, with negative impacts on water quality.
What is the Environmental Stewardship Department doing?
Using funds from the Clean Water Utility, the department regularly sweeps streets in areas with high impervious surface cover to reduce the load of contaminants that washes off during storms. Stormwater retention basins are cleaned so they function efficiently. In collaboration with the San Juan County Conservation District, the department has provided support for fencing to reduce livestock access to streams. Fenced riparian zones are being planted with native species to reduce erosion and contaminant runoff and to increase infiltration. Rain gardens have been installed to increase water infiltration, and plantings in roadside ditches help filter impurities from runoff before it reaches streams.
(Factsheets coming soon!)
- Crow Valley Stream Corridor Restoration
- Fish Trap Creek Culvert Replacement
- Bayhead Creek Culvert Replacement
Every state has its own unique water law. In Washington, all waters originating within the state belong to the public. Water rights can be given to individuals or groups to use, but no one can own them.
In 1917, Washington adopted the “first in time” principle for establishing water rights. Our state also adopted the “beneficial use” principle, which gives those who first put water to a good use the right to continue using it in the future. Once a water right is established, it must be put to continuous beneficial use or it will be lost after 5 years of non-use with exceptions (RCW 90.14.140)
Ground or Well Water
There are important exemptions from the requirement to have a state water right for ground water. When water comes from a well, as ground water, no water right is required for certain domestic uses:
- domestic uses under 5,000 gallons per day
- irrigation for up to one-half acre of non-commercial lawn or garden
- industrial or commercial uses under 5,000 gallons per day
- stock watering, that is, water for livestock or domestic animals
There are no exemptions from the requirement to have a state water right for surface waters. Surface waters are those in streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, or wetlands. To obtain a water right for surface waters, the applicant must provide a professional analysis of the impacts of withdrawing water or diverting water from the stream, river, lake, or pond. The impacts that must be considered are both to the natural watercourse and senior water rights holders on the system. Most of the surface waters of the State of Washington have been appropriated, so purchasing a water right from an existing right holder is sometimes the best idea.
For rainwater, a water right is not required for on-site storage and use of rainwater collected on a rooftop, according to Department of Ecology Policy 1017, 2009.
Human Made Ponds and Reservoirs
A reservoir storage water right is required when you impound 10-acre feet of water or more or are impounding 10-feet or more in depth. These pond/lake/reservoir systems require design and review of a qualified engineer, require regular inspection, and enrollment with the Department of Ecology’s dam safety program. Ponds are smaller than a reservoir noted above and do not require a storage water right. However, any impoundment – reservoir or pond – that requires filling from surface water, will require a diversionary water right.
Water Right Acquisition
To obtain a water right, a landowner must apply to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Existing water rights may also be purchased from the current holder, with approval by the Department of Ecology. There are forms for applications and transfers on the Department of Ecology website: apps.ecology.wa.gov, for a Pre-Application Consultation Form or for a Water Rights Application Form ECY040-114 to apply for a new water right.
You can find existing water rights on a state map, “Water Rights Map Search.” The map search may be found on this site: appswr.ecology.wa.gov
For more information, contact :
Ecology Northwest Region Office
P.O. Box 330316
Shoreline WA 98113
The following fact sheet from Ecology provides in depth information and links: https://apps.ecology.wa.gov/publications/documents/2011002.pdf
Fish, Amphibians, and Reptiles Are Beneficial Users of Surface Waters
Watersheds in the San Juan Islands are small relative to others within the Salish Sea and often limited by low summer flows. Despite this, “salmonids” (salmon and trout) including coastal cutthroat trout (Onchorhynchus clarki clarki), coho salmon (O. kitsutch), chum salmon (O. keta), and Chinook salmon (O. tshawytsha) have been recently documented within county watersheds along with other native species including freshwater sculpins (Cottus sp.), dace (Rhinichthys sp.), and Three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus).
Amphibians including the Northwestern salamander (Ambystoma gracilis), Long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum), Rough-Skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa), Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regalia), and Red-legged frog (Rana aurora) also inhabit watersheds of the county. All amphibians require access to water for breeding, laying eggs, and raising larva even if they spend part of their lives on land.
Reptiles including the common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.), Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), Northern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea), Rubber Boa (Charina bottae), and Sharp-tailed snake (Contia tenuis) also inhabit the San Juan Islands.
What are the threats?
Many of these local populations of salmonids, amphibians, and reptiles are small and vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation due to human pressures (forestry, roads, agriculture, drainage and ponding, pets and feral animals), pollution, disease, fishing and collecting, interactions and competition with invasive species, and factors associated with climate change.
What are we doing to protect them?
Based on survival challenges to the above species, measures are being implemented by the SJC’s Environmental Stewardship Program, CWAC, state and Federal agencies, conservation organizations, and local landowners to better protect these at-risk populations:
- Maintain and restore stream buffers along creek beds and surface waters to filter pollutants, reduce elevated stream temperatures, and provide habitat. Environmental Stewardship is working in partnership with the San Juan Islands Conservation District, San Juan Preservation Trust, Conservation Land Bank, and San Juan Conservation Corps to restore riparian trees and shrubs along priority streams in False Bay, Garrison, and Crow Valley watersheds.
- Improve and reconnect surface waters with fish-friendly culvert replacements. Environmental Stewardship is working on culvert replacement projects to reconnect surface waters for fish and wildlife as well as the safety of the public at Bayhead, Fish Trap, and Doe Bay Creeks.
- Prevent surface water pollutants from entering streams and waterbodies with periodic street sweeping and construction of bioswales. Environmental Stewardship crews utilize street sweepers and bioswales to remove, filter, and slow down the movements of pollutants that enter surface waters.
- Work with San Juan Islands Conservation District and agriculture producers to install livestock exclusion fencing to reduce bacteria and excess nutrients from entering streams.and restore riparian vegetation.
- Control and remove aquatic invasive species including bass (Micropterus sp.), American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), and Red Eared Slider aka Pond Turtle (Emydidae), where they prey on and compete with at-risk native species for habitat and food resources.
What can you do to protect them?
- Prevent the spread of invasive species such as bass and other non-native species in county surface waters. Maintain fish screens on outlets and inlets to ponds that are stocked with non-natives.
- Fish responsibly. Residents and non-residents alike must have a WDFW Fishing License to catch salmonids in Washington waters from WDFW unless under 15 years old.
- Collection or transport of Washington’s native fish, amphibians, and reptiles is permitted only for research and educational activities and requires a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit. Native amphibians and reptiles cannot be kept as pets. A WDFW Fish Stocking Permit from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is required to transport and stock fish into lakes or ponds.
- Any hydraulic construction activity including diversions, ditching, culverts, damming, and pumping within state waters require a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) from WDFW under RCW 77.55.011(11).
- Any water impoundment or usage of water from a stream, pond, lake or spring requires a water right under RCW 90.14.043 from Washington Department of Ecology.
- Protect and plant native vegetation around creeks and water bodies to buffer pollutants, lower summer stream temperatures and provide wildlife habitat. Consult with the San Juan Islands Conservation District for advice on planting and maintaining native plants.
- Report your observations of salmonids, amphibians, and reptiles to WDFW to help with our understanding of their distribution and status within San Juan County for conservation purposes.