November 30, 2021
The clock is ticking on the Department of Ecology's plan to publish a draft environment impact statement (EIS) on Eightmile Lake.
Initially, it predicted release of the long-awaited document in October, with public comments and meetings following that until sometime near Christmas. Obviously, those plans are sliding.
The EIS is expected to evaluate three spillway designs and two construction alternatives for a rebuilt Eightmile Lake dam.
Following a flood threat in 2018, temporary repairs stabilized the 90-year old dam. However, Ecology's dam safety office has concluded that the dam should be rebuilt. That meshed with plans by the Icicle Peshastin Irrigation District, which operates the dam, to withdraw more water.
In February, Ecology received nearly five thousand public comments on what this EIS should consider. Two major issues emerged: (1) the extent of the irrigation district's water rights, and (2) impacts on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Water rights have been a hot-button issue since the irrigation district first asserted a right to withdraw more water from the lake. Conservationists claim that under state law the irrigation district has relinquished the unused portions of its old water rights through decades of non-use.
In response to the nearly-five thousand comments, Ecology offered some explanation of how it would address those comments when it prepares its EIS. Conservationists then sought clarification of Ecology's ambiguous explanation about how it would address the relinquishment question. The agency has not responded.
When it releases its draft EIS, it appears that Ecology finally will be forced to confront the relinquishment issue and what state law requires it to do. It has dodged this issue since at least 2017, knowing that whatever it decides is likely to spark litigation.
Ecology still anticipates public meetings and a comment period after release of the draft EIS. Initially, it predicted a final decision by March 2022. That date appears likely to slide.