Lake water for sale

1888 Lake Washington rights bought

By J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter

A handful of the Island’s waterfront property owners and the city have tapped into a largely unknown and unique opportunity, attaining the right to use Lake Washington for irrigation.

Water rights have traditionally been difficult to get in Washington, but King County’s oldest water district, King County Water District No. 1, is now selling shares of its water rights to homes, businesses and municipalities along the shores of Lake Washington, Portage Bay and Lake Union.

According to Bob Trimble, the president of District 1 commissioners, 51 shares of water rights have been approved by the state department of ecology and sold by the water district. That leaves about 50 percent of the water rights still available. Three or four Island properties have purchased the water rights, Trimble said. The cities of Mercer Island, Kirkland and Bellevue have purchased water rights as well.

The five-member board of District 1 commissioners decided in 2005 to cease providing drinking water from the fresh spring wells of Carillon Point. In 2005, Trimble said the total value of water rights was $330,000. The district was established in 1888 near Yarrow Point.

Trimble said word of the rights’ availability has spread slowly, mostly by word of mouth. The city of Mercer Island recently found out about it and jumped on the opportunity. One South end resident, Don Leuthold, recently applied for some water rights to legalize his 50-year-old lake drawing sprinkler system.

“I had a pump in the lake for 50 years, since I’ve lived on property here. I thought that I was grandfathered in,” Leuthold said. “I have to give credit to my neighbor, who did some research and found water rights available. He took care of it.”

In 1955, Leuthold installed a pump in Lake Washington off his waterfront property in the 7200 block of West Mercer Way. That pump provided drinking water and irrigation for four households, he said. He chlorinated the water in his basement so it was safe to drink, and for several years that was the way the South end got its water. While the Leuthold home gets drinking water from the city today, he continued using a smaller pump for his sprinkler system.

A neighbor recently suggested that Leuthold may need to obtain water rights to use the pump today. After doing some research, the neighbor discovered Leuthold did need water rights and found somebody selling them from District 1.

“This just solidifies my system, making it legal,” Leuthold said.

The water district commission began selling shares about two years ago, just after it stopped serving drinking water to its 200 customers, Trimble said. The city of Kirkland had the first right of refusal to purchase the water rights and bought 41.8 acre feet per year, or $56,000 worth. Leuthold is buying 1.2 acre feet per year, costing him a one-time fee around $1,500.

While the Carillon Point well had been used by District 1 for almost 118 years as drinking water, the quality gradually fell below the state’s standards and expensive upgrades were required. Rather than spend the money to filter or clean the wells, the commissioners decided to let the water run into Lake Washington and sell shares of its water rights.

Water rights may no longer be claimed since the state legislature closed its claims registry in 1974. District 1, however, has rights from 1888. The district’s water rights allow a total of 297 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day for the irrigation season, which lasts from April 15 to Oct. 30. That’s the equivalent of 85,108,320 gallons of Lake Washington water available each irrigation season.

The state officially ended its water claims registry on June 30, 1974. The state legislature has subsequently re-opened the claims registry three times since then. The most recent opening occurred from September 1997 to June 1998. According to the department of ecology Web site, there are roughly 169,000 water-right claims in Washington.

According to assistant city manager and parks department director Pete Mayer, the city purchased some District 1 water rights shortly after it heard they were available.

“Water rights are extremely difficult to acquire and retain,” Mayer said. “I’ve had past experience with water rights and this was a very unique opportunity to take advantage of another public entity’s ability to sell their rights to draw water from the lake.”

The city purchased water rights last June, according to Mayer. It can use 40 gallons per minute to irrigate up to 10 acres within a total of 43 acres in three waterfront park locations. It plans to use them to irrigate at Luther Burbank, Groveland and Clark Beach parks. At $1,330 per acre foot per year, the city paid around $6,000 for its share of 4.5 acre foot per year.

The city has to install the necessary additional infrastructure and capital investments before it uses the lake water. Mayer said those expenses have not yet been budgeted for.

For other Islanders interested in attaining a share of District 1 water rights, they may contact the water district. Approval from the State Department of Ecology (DOE) is also required. Approval from DOE and the districts commission generally only takes a few months, Trimble said. It took Leuthold around 75 days to complete the application process. Applications made in the fall can be processed and approved before the next irrigation season. According to Trimble, the process begins with an application from the commission that takes about a week to pass. The department of ecology can take as long as eight months, he said, but it gets quicker after processing the initial half of possible transfers.

Leuthold, who owns a winery off the Columbia River, has experience with water rights and said he is happy his Island pump will now be legal.

“It’s extremely important for due diligence to reserve those water rights,” Leuthold said.

For information regarding King County Water District 1 water rights, e-mail

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