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State Supreme Court deciding whether salmon or property owners get water


Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people could have their water shut off by the state Supreme Court. A case before the court pits the Swinomish Indian Tribe against homeowners in a clash of two ways of life.

Zach Barborinas bought a lot in rural Stanwood in part because of the beautiful water views of North Puget Sound, but now all he sees is a dried up dream.

“I have a development, a plat that’s approved by Snohomish County,” he says. “I thought I was pretty safe.”

He was wrong. Barborinas’s home is on hold because he has no water. The Swinomish Tribe owns the water rights on his property, and even though his well was approved, a deep running legal battle between the tribe and the state means he hasn’t seen a drop.

“It’s crazy. When I called the Department of Ecology they said, ‘You can dig wells all day long. That doesn’t mean you can use them.'”

The trouble dates back to 1996 when the Swinomish, along with state and county officials signed a 50 year water rights agreement. Since then, the tribe claims the state quietly approved an illegal amendment that allows far greater use of the water than previously agreed upon. They say it essentially opens up water rights to developers, and others, instead of only for entities like schools or fire departments in “exceptional circumstances.”

The Swinomish fear diverting flow from the Skagit Watershed will hurt salmon stocks and ultimately fisherman feeding their families, threatening the way of life for its 3,000 people.

“Salmon have been at the heart of the Swinomish Tribe’s culture and livelihood for millennia,” says tribal attorney Stephen LeCuyer.

While the Department of Ecology says only 2 percent of salmon habitat would be affected by allowing greater access to the waters flowing into the Skagit Basin, LeCuyer says that’s slippery slope.

“If it’s 2 percent today, and 2 percent tomorrow, and 2 percent the year after that pretty soon you’re at 100 percent and there aren’t any fish.”

If the Swinomish win in court, property owners say Barborinas, about 500 more homeowners, and some 5,000 other farmers and landowners across the Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom Counties could lose their access to water. It’s also a move that would preserve salmon for the next 40 years. For now both sides wait, as the court weighs the rights of two conflicting communities while trying to keep nature in balance.

The State Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides Tuesday. A decision isn’t expected until well into 2013.

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