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Skagit’s Water Rights Showdown

 Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.

Kate Martin | Posted: Monday, April 23, 2012 11:34 am

As rain pummeled the ground in big, fat drops last week, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen remarked on what has become one of the most contentious issues in Skagit County.

“It’s hard when you look out the window (to think) that we have a crisis in water up here,” she said.

While the issue of how much water is available for development in Skagit County is hotly contested, the real dispute boils down to how that water is parceled out.

That issue has culminated in decades of political wrangling, pitting county interests against state and utility demands and the local Swinomish Indian Tribal Community against the county and state, all the while racking up millions of dollars in legal costs and dragging in state lawmakers — even the Governor’s office.

Most recently, the battle has seemingly sunk to a level of name-calling and personal attacks, with the county commissioners’ attorney calling the mayor of Anacortes a former “semi-employed local handyman” in a letter to state legislators.

Meanwhile, some frustrated property owners have been left stuck in the middle, not knowing whether they’ll ever be able to develop their land.

Haugen said the power struggle over water in Skagit County is “sort of like divorce court … There’s been a lot of finger-pointing.”

County commissioners have said the idea of a water shortage in wet western Washington is hard to accept and the real issue is that the Swinomish tribe wants to control growth in the county.

The Swinomish, who say they’ve challenged the state and county to protect the salmon population, contend the county is waging a campaign against them to hide the fact that the county and Ecology agreed to limit development in several stream basins.

The Swinomish say the state Department of Ecology is arbitrarily allowing water to be withdrawn from those basins, which harms salmon habitat.

In the end, “I think there’s enough sin to go around for everybody,” Haugen said of the decades-old battle.

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