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Water right purchased to protect salmon in Cascade Creek

Collaborative partnerships have become the rule for protecting two of Washington's most precious resources – salmon and water. With the first permanent environmental water right purchase in western Washington completed October 22, 2009 Cascade Creek on Orcas Island has emerged as a living example that instream flow projects can benefit salmon and still meet the needs of the local community.


After three years of study and negotiation, the nonprofit Washington Water Trust, and Orcas Water Holdings have closed a deal to permanently protect water for fish and habitat in Cascade Creek on Orcas Island. Washington Water Trust purchased ¼¼ cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to leave in the stream during the months of June, July and August, and ½ cfs in September and October. Even this relatively small amount of water will benefit important species like coho and chum salmon, sea run cutthroat trout and resident trout by providing instream flows during the hottest and driest periods of the year.


"Where salmon are concerned, a little water can go a long way," says Amanda Cronin of Washington Water Trust. "As we studied this system, we quickly realized that just small increases in the flows of Cascade Creek in the late summer would make a difference for the fish populations there."

"Cascade Creek is one of the crown jewels of Orcas Island," says Buck Smith, a hydrogeologist for the Washington Department of Ecology. "In past years, I have seen a portion of the creek run completely dry during the late summer and early fall. With this acquisition, a guaranteed flow of water will remain in the stream from source to sea for perpetuity. Not only will fish and other aquatic life enjoy benefits, but also local residents and visitors to the island."

Cascade Creek is a perennial stream on Orcas Island that flows from Mountain Lake off of Mount Constitution through Moran State Park and into Buck Bay on the south side of Orcas Island. The health of the Cascade Creek ecosystem is very important to both the Orcas Island community and visitors who enjoy the recreational and educational activities throughout this watershed.

WWT's collaborative approach to water needs proved instrumental in securing this historic agreement. Since the 1880s, water has been diverted out of the Cascade Creek basin through a ditch to Cascade Lake to supply Rosario Resort and the surrounding community. The communities of Olga and Doe Bay also divert drinking water from Cascade Creek. Water rights were established on the creek before need for instream flows was considered. If these water rights were to be used to their fullest extent, they would leave the stream dry in the late summer and early fall when flow is scarce and spawning salmon need water the most.

In a landmark deal, Washington Water Trust and Orcas Water Holdings reached an agreement that acknowledges multiple needs for Cascade Creek water for community water systems, hydropower and stream flows for fish and wildlife. "We balanced the future needs of communities on Orcas Island with this opportunity to help preserve Cascade Creek, and found that we could meet both goals," said Laurie Cameron, Vice President of Orcas Water Holdings. Water rights acquisition costs were funded through generous support from the Washington Department of Ecology and the Orcas Island Community Foundation.

The water purchased will be placed in the Washington State Trust Water Rights Program where it is permanently protected for the public benefit. Project development support was provided by Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wild Fish Conservancy, San Juan County, and KWIAHT (Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea).

"The Cascade Creek project is a terrific example of balancing the needs of water for people and water for fish," says Cronin. "Protecting stream flow in Cascade Creek will ensure the health of salmon and trout that use the creek and its estuary and also preserve a resource vital to the identity of the Orcas Island community. As the first purchase of water for instream flow in western Washington, this project demonstrates the power of cooperative solutions in achieving equitable water allocation for people and fish."


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