Center for

  Environmental Law & Policy

Updated June 22, 2008

Big Win for  Rivers, Aquifers, & Existing Water Users

Judge issues landmark water decision

Decision impacts municipal water rights, WSU

On June 11, a state judge struck down key parts of a 2003 water law that would have allowed drastically expanded water use for development. The “Municipal Water Law” redefined private developers as municipalities and retroactively allowed developers and municipalities to increase their use of water under paper water rights at the expense of other water users and rivers and streams.

This ruling affects every water right holder who has a certificate based on system capacity or “pumps and pipes” instead of actual use. Judge Jim Rogers of the King County Superior Court held that actual use of water is the standard in Washington. Any water right based on pumps and pipes is now suspect.

Municipal water rights, like every other water right, are subject to legal tests intended to protect other water users and the environment.  With this ruling, the state can finally evaluate paper water rights under these legal tests and ensure orderly and responsible development of state water resources.  If municipal water rights fail the test, then they lose the right.

In challenging the law, CELP joined with Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Puget Sound Harvesters, six western Washington tribes and several individual water right holders.  CELP and its co-plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Shaun Goho and Kristen Boyles of EarthJustice.


The Washington Supreme Court has scheduled oral argument for the morning of January 12, 2010 at the Temple of Justice in Olympia.  CELP will post commentary after the hearing.

Read Rachael Osborn's article "An Environmental Perspective on the Municipal Water Law," published in the Spring 2008 issue of the AWRA-WA Newsletter.  In this article Rachael explains how certain provisions of the Muni Water Law make it impossible to restore instream flows to rivers.


for water action alerts

1891-2007 dropping flows.  River flows have been declining for more than 100 years even as pumping from the Spokane Aquifer has increased.  The chart shows a decrease of about 1,000 cubic feet per second at the Monroe Street Bridge, where measurements have been taken since 1891.  (Source:  Washington Dept of Ecology)

Fishing among the rocks, Spokane River (in the West Central Neighborhood).  The river supports an uncommonly fine urban fishery that is in peril.  (photo:  John Osborn)