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Originally published Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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Skagit County suggests Swinomish drop lawsuit in water dispute

In the latest round of a dispute over a 1996 water agreement, Skagit County commissioners say they will sign on again if the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community drops a lawsuit against the state.

Skagit Valley Herald

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MOUNT VERNON — Skagit County commissioners say they will rejoin a 1996 water agreement if the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community drops its lawsuit against the state Department of Ecology.

The tribe's lawsuit is being reviewed by the state Supreme Court. If the tribe is successful, it could lead to all rural and agricultural landowners in the Skagit River basin losing access to well water if they drilled their well in 2001 or after, Ecology officials have said.

The commissioners' letter, sent Friday, is in response to those sent last week by Anacortes and the Swinomish. Those letters in turn were in response to a November letter by commissioners announcing the county had left the 1996 Memorandum of Agreement, which outlined a historic water agreement in the valley.

Commissioners also asserted that they had left the agreement because the Swinomish and Anacortes broke that agreement by suing Ecology to invalidate a 2006 state rule amendment that allows more water for rural and agricultural users. The original rule amendment, from 2001, provided no new water at all for rural landowners or for agricultural uses, the county states.

The commissioners' letter outlined a path to where the county could rejoin the agreement: "You can remedy your ongoing breach by dismissing your pending lawsuit. Until that happens, Skagit County is not a party to the 1996 MOA, and has no further obligations under the 1996 MOA."

Larry Wasserman, environmental-services director for the tribe, had little to say about the commissioners' response.

"Our previous letter speaks for itself, as do the facts on our website," he said. "People can look there to find out what the real history has been."

The commissioners' letter also says the tribe and city's ongoing lawsuit "completely undermines the stated purpose of the 1996 MOA" by seeking to eliminate all water for rural landowners and farmers.

The city and tribe both said in their letters that the county was using the same legal process for challenging Ecology's rule when it sued the agency in 2003 as the tribe used to challenge the rule amendment in 2008.

Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen said it's not the same.

Wesen said the 2003 disagreement the county had with Ecology involved the 2001 instream flow rule because that rule did not include any water for rural agriculture or residences requiring a well.

"What the tribe and Anacortes are saying: 'We don't agree with Ecology's authority to make this change.' If they don't have authority to do that, then all exempt wells since 2001" are gone, Wesen said.

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