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What is the Connection Between the City of Anacortes, the City's Massive Skagit River Water Claim, the Swinomish Indian Tribe, and Salmon?

If you listen to the Chairman of the Swinomish Tribe or Anacortes' last mayor, Dean MAxwell, you hear a lot about how they're protecting salmon by working to take water away from Skagit farmers and rural landowners.  

The story of water in the Skagit isn’t about salmon. It’s a story about plain, old-fashioned greed, power and money.

In 1996, the Swinomish Tribe and the City of Anacortes made plans to control the water supply in the Skagit watershed. The Swinomish agreed to recognize Anacortes' claim to nearly two-thirds of the available water in the Skagit River watershed. Anacortes struck a deal that gave Swinomish all the water it needs, effectively making Anacortes and the Swinomish partners in the water business. And they pledged to end rural citizens' access to free well water, making farmers and landowners dependent on piped water that Anacortes controls and sells.

This was their master plan, and they are close to attaining it, with no voice for Skagit farmers and rural landowners. That's how we got here. The details are below.

How Does Anacortes Claim Nearly Two-Thirds Of The Water In The Skagit Watershed?

In the decades before the environmental movement, cities could speculatively lay claim to water simply by building large-capacity water systems. Using federal taxpayer dollars granted to supply NAS Whidbey with water over half a century ago, the City of Anacortes built an extremely large water system, allowing it to now claim over 85 million gallons per day from the Skagit River system. To put that into context, that's over 60% of the available water in the entire Skagit River watershed. 

Think about that for a minute:  the Mayor of a town of 15,000 claims to control nearly two-thirds of the available water in the Skagit watershed.  Does that sound right to you? It does to the Anacortes Mayor, who sees himself as the CEO of a water corporation

You might ask yourself: with a claim to Skagit water that big, why is the Anacortes Mayor working so hard to take any access to water from Skagit farmers and rural landowners?

It's just basic economics: when you have a large supply of something that's free and available, you make your supply more valuable by taking everyone else's supply away. In economic terms, that's called "artificial scarcity."   

Predictably, after working hand in hand with the Swinomish Tribe to ensure no water is available for farmers or rural landowners in the Skagit River watershed, Anacortes is now offering to sell water to those who have lost it

The Anacortes-Swinomish Alliance Has Nothing To Do With Protecting Salmon. It's a Business Partnership - Plain and Simple.

The Swinomish Tribe itself doesn’t have to worry about water – it gets all the water it needs from the City of Anacortes -- at cheap, wholesale rates, guaranteed until 2025. And the way the rate structure is set up means the Swinomish and Anacortes are effectively joint venture partners in the Anacortes water system.  

In close coordination with the City of Anacortes, the Swinomish Tribe sued to ensure that Skagit farmers and rural landowners have no access to water.  

At the same time, the Swinomish have been spying on farmers who dare to irrigate their crops in the Skagit Valley, part of their long-range plan to control the Skagit Valley by controlling its water supply, in conjunction with Anacortes.

This Isn’t About Salmon. It's About Power and Greed. 

It’s a story of money, hypocrisy, and “do as I say, not as I do.”  The Swinomish and Anacortes are working to take water from landowners and farmers of the Skagit Basin, claiming it’s about fish, and offering to sell the water back to their victims.   

Is there a problem with salmon in the Skagit? Not really. While the Swinomish leader has worked hard to sustain his personal relevance by promoting a narrative of constant conflict, the Skagit Valley community has quietly worked hard to protect our environment, with much greater success than King County and Snohomish County to the south. As a result, the Skagit River still holds strong runs of all five species of Pacific salmon.

The real reason salmon numbers aren’t increasing faster in the Skagit River System -- despite hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on salmon habitat -- has very little to do with the water supply.

As the Swinomish Tribe's Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan fully recognizes, there are a wide range of issues that hamper recovery of Skagit salmon numbers, and threatened Chinook in particular.

There are plenty of salmon for tribes' subsistence and ceremonial needs. While it is seldom discussed for reasons of political correctness, one of the main problems with salmon recovery is the expectation that tribes should continue to engage in industrial commercial fishing in the Skagit River's beds, using a 19th century agreement to sustain a 21st century American cash-based lifestyle.

The Swinomish also insist on absolute self-regulation of their industrial commercial fishing, despite the Swinomish leadership's obvious inabilty to follow their own rules meant to protect salmon stocks.

State government has sat idly by, refusing to protect the citizens, landowners and farmers of the Skagit Valley from this fiasco, something plainly connected to the massive campaign donations from the Swinomish Tribe to the current Governor and her political causes. 

Far from helping to fix the problem, the Governor has actively encouraged the Swinomish leadership's bad behavior, hiring the Swinomish Tribe’s in-house attorney as her own Chief of Staff immediately after the Swinomish sued the State of Wasington in 2008 to eliminate water for Skagit farmers and rural landowners.

None of this is doing anything for Skagit salmon, and we're wasting precious time to prepare our community for the coming water resource shortage as the climate heats and glaciers rapidly melt.

The Skagit River watershed holds one of the most environmentally progressive communities in the nation, already banning nearly all development on farmland, forestland and floodplain. We've also planned for land use for the next fifty years through Envision Skagit 2060, a broad, community-based visioning process funded by the federal government.

But because of the litigation and acrimony over water, Envision Skagit 2060 was unable to effectively incorporate water as part of the community's long-range planning process. Receding Skagit glaciers coupled with an uncertain water supply for Skagit agriculture and rural landowners means an unstable and unsustainable future.

JustWaterAlliance.org supports protecting the Skagit Valley’s water supply for future generations. This can only happen through open, balanced, and fair water resource planning that treats water as a precious public trust, and all citizens of the community with respect and fairness.