Freshwater Availability

Understand and plan for future freshwater availability and implement regulations, projects, and voluntary approaches to reduce water demand and encourage conservation, as well as reclaimed wastewater.
Rivers and streams in the watersheds of Puget Sound provide ecological corridors and transport water, wood, sediment, organic matter, and nutrients downstream where they influence freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. Freshwater is vital to human life and wellbeing. It is also vital to salmon and species throughout our ecosystem. Washington’s rivers and streams are stressed by changing climate conditions and by the demands of a growing human population. Managing demand and promoting freshwater conservation will be critical as the human population increases in the Puget Sound region, especially in light of current and predicted decrease in snowpack and increased frequency of droughts brought about by climate change.

In January 2018, the Legislature passed the Streamflow Restoration law (RCW 90.94) that helps restore streamflows to levels necessary to support robust, healthy, and sustainable salmon populations while providing water for homes in rural Washington. The law directs local planning groups to develop watershed plans that offset impacts from new domestic permit-exempt wells and achieve a net ecological benefit within the watershed. The Legislature appropriated $300 million over the course of 15 years to help with the implementation of projects that improve streamflow. The funds are available statewide and administered through a competitive grant program.

This strategy builds on this direction from the Legislature, as well as other policies and initiatives, by supporting planning for how Washington will manage and protect instream habitat and water levels, that will enable human communities and instream biota to thrive over the long term. The near-term objectives for water demand and water conservation address four key sectors: municipalities, agriculture, industry, and rural domestic water users. Demand and conservation goals will be met through a combination of implementation and enforcement of rules, voluntary participation in conservation programs (and efforts to utilize reclaimed water), market-based approaches to adjust water usage, integrated river basin planning with residents and stakeholders, and deployment of current and emerging water conservation technologies.

Implementing the Benthic Index of Biotic Integration and other Implementation Strategies supports the success of this strategy.
  • Reduce peak flows, increase low flows

Implement and improve technologies, voluntary programs, financial and technical assistance programs, and market-based approaches to reduce water demand and encourage conservation. (ID #27)

Key opportunities for 2022-2026 include:

  • Implement voluntary programs and financial programs identified in Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Plans or Watershed Plan amendments;
  • Address population stress and effects of public water systems on water supply and streamflows given decreased snowpack and increased droughts and achieve near-term objectives for water demand and conservation across municipalities, agriculture, industry, and rural domestic water users;
  • Expand and accelerate incentives for voluntary action;
  • Coordinate regulatory activities;
  • Provide ongoing support and monitor for voluntary programs to inform corrective action;
  • Address the policy and legislative issues related to water laws;
  • Provide easy to understand information on feasible and effective practices to landowners, residents, and visitors;
  • Understand water needs, use, quantity, and quality on tribal lands throughout the watershed;
  • Support watershed scale instream temperature monitoring in rearing, spawning, and critical habitats for the most vulnerable fish species;
  • Focus to improve water quality and quantity in key salmon migration and rearing corridors throughout Puget Sound.

Implement watershed plans that offset impacts from new domestic permit-exempt wells and achieve a net ecological benefit within the watershed. (ID #28)

Key opportunities for 2022-2026 include:

  • Implement watershed plans that offset impacts from new domestic permit-exempt wells;
  • Update watershed plans;
  • Provide watershed planning guidance at the state-level;
  • Develop and enforce methods to ensure watershed plan implementation and maintenance;
  • Allocate funding to implement projects that improve streamflow, particularly in basins where that has not been conducted;
  • Assess projected impacts on flows of anthropogenic warming beyond 2038, and design strategies to offset expected impacts;
  • Monitor and define baseline demand and flow conditions;
  • Conduct effectiveness and impact monitoring in the context of climate change;
  • Update watershed assessments to understand susceptibility and resilience to development;
  • Update water law and policies to address existing and future water shortages;
  • Update plans that focus on critical aquifer recharge areas with draw-down data;
  • Engage LIOs to develop watershed-scale plans that address local recovery needs;
  • Leverage mitigation certification programs for landowners;
  • Utilize forestry management research and BMPs for watershed health recovery;
  • Evaluate habitat and fish trends at the watershed scale.

Understand and plan for future water needs and changing climate and ecosystem conditions by engaging all water users in a watershed to identify specific actions around water science, technology, management, and conservation. (ID #29)

Key opportunities for 2022-2026 include:

  • Ensure watershed-scale planning addresses water quantity, water quality, fish habitat, and instream flows;
  • Implement and adaptively manage Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Plans and Watershed Plan Amendments;
  • Support water use data collection (metering and reporting) to improve watershed level knowledge about watershed carrying capacity, consumptive uses and effects on stream hydrology and habitat;
  • Improve knowledge of water users and how their uses affect stream hydrology;
  • Support proactive planning for how Washington will manage and protect instream habitat and water levels given stress from changing climate conditions (for example, seawater intrusion) and demands on water use priorities of growing human populations;
  • Develop tools, data sharing systems, and models for Puget Sound instream flow monitoring and conservation;
  • Coordinate outreach between watersheds and agencies on water quality and quantity enforcement;
  • Support technical assistance that is attuned to climate change impacts;
  • Increase funding and support to guide enforcement of water quantity and quality standards to protect water resources for salmon.
Implementation Considerations

Key opportunities for 2022-2026 to integrate human wellbeing considerations and climate change responses into efforts include:

Human Wellbeing

  • Use modeling systems to establish a baseline understanding of drinking water quality across wells.
  • Engage communities, particularly those most impacted by inequitable water pricing and inaccessibility and unavailability, in water resources conservation planning, design, and implementation.
  • Tailor outreach campaigns to reduce water demand without disenfranchising vulnerable populations and underserved communities.
  • Allocate funding and provide incentives to transition small communities from septic systems to small-scale water treatment and reuse programs.
  • Ensure water pricing and availability systems prioritize basic human needs as a core first step in making development decisions.

Climate Change

  • Incorporate climate change education into programs to reduce water demand.
  • Factor future climate conditions into planning for future water needs.
  • For the subbasins that have high usage, work with landowners and water trusts to incentivize protection. Consider including other types of users (industrial and ag) in addition to landowners.
  • Emphasize existing laws and requirements for new development and look to incentivize actions that reduce water demand.
  • Work closely with watershed improvement districts that have irrigation efficiency programs to identify and implement effective programmatic approaches to water efficiency.
  • Track and analyze emerging conditions (climate changes) and technologies and strategies.
  • Understand variable climate change impact on future water availability and use climate change modeling to inform management decisions across watersheds. For example, tools and resources from University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, and the USFS Northwest Climate Hub.
Ongoing Programs

Ongoing programs are contributing efforts that provide regulatory oversight, technical support, implementation resources, funding, or guidance and serve as the critical foundation for Puget Sound recovery. The following is a list of example state and federal ongoing programs that help to implement this strategy. Many more local, tribal nations, and nongovernmental programs exist that support this strategy.

What We're Measuring

We are achieving our recovery goal of increasing functioning habitat and ensuring adequate abundant water quantity in the Puget Sound region by reducing or mitigating surface water diversions and groundwater withdrawals to meet instream flow targets, increasing the amount of infiltration and water holding capacity of upland areas, increasing awareness of local geology driving groundwater systems, protecting from actions that degrade storage potential, and identifying opportunities for enhanced storage. The indicator of success is maintaining flows in summer.

Summer low flow in streams and rivers

The summer low flow indicator measures current conditions and long-term trends in stream flows that occur during summer months when there is less rain and temperatures are warmer. The indicator tells us how often summer flows are below normal, relative to a 50-year baseline, in unregulated streams and rivers across Puget Sound. When flows are below normal, less water is available for people and wildlife to use, less habitat is available for salmon and it can contribute to increased water temperatures and lower water quality.

Status of annual summer low flow at indicator streamgages. Each cell is color coded for a category of frequency of below normal flow. Categories are based on the percent of days each year between July 15th and September 15th where the mean daily flow was below normal (i.e., below the 1948-1998 baseline 25th percentile). When most days (50% or more) were below normal, the cell is shaded purple. When fewer than 50% of the days were below normal, the cell is shaded blue. Streamgages are grouped as 1) rain-sourced, 2) transitional (between rain- and snow-sourced), or 3) snow-sourced based on the center of timing date.

Current Legislative Actions (3 Bills)
2024 | State Bill HB 2105
Related Activity Types
Related Strategies
7 - Freshwater Availability
Status: Did not pass
2024 | State Bill HB 2187
Related Activity Types
Related Strategies
7 - Freshwater Availability
Status: Did not pass
2024 | State Bill SB 5517
Related Activity Types
Policy and Regulation Development
Related Strategies
7 - Freshwater Availability
Status: Did not pass