Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Water Resources Act of 1971, Washington’s program to protect instream flows in state rivers. Implementation has been controversial and, even a half century later, incomplete. Part 1 introduces the Act. Part 2 examines its legislative history, and administrative development by the Department of Ecology. The Act innovated water allocation, putting instream flows and public uses of rivers on par with out-of-stream water rights. But river protection labors under serious limitations, chief among them the subordination of instream flows to pre-existing water rights. And, although only half of Washington’s watersheds are protected under the Act, the program has ground to a halt. Part 3 examines twelve lawsuits that interpreted or relied on the Act, and the role of the courts in both endorsing and eroding the Act’s provisions. Part 4 concludes with recommendations for new water resources policy legislation. Absent affirmative steps by the state Legislature, Washington’s rivers are unprepared for the adverse impacts of the climate crisis.

First Page




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