Backlog of three dozen applicants whose plans depend on wells

By Marcy Stamper

After a several-month-long hiatus in issuing building permits for houses that depend on a well for water, Okanogan County has started reviewing applications and hopes to begin issuing permits by the end of March.

Three dozen building permits have been on hold as the county worked out an approach for complying with a 2016 state Supreme Court order that requires anyone who wants to build a house to first prove there is enough water — and that they have the right to use it. The “Hirst” ruling also puts the responsibility for determining water adequacy on the counties, not the Washington Department of Ecology.

Now that the county has held three hearings to gather information about how much water there really is — based on well logs, hydrogeological studies and watershed plans — officials believe they have enough information to calculate a baseline quantity of water, said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston. The county has also received input from the public to help quantify the water.

“Right now, it’s still a moving target,” said County Commissioner Andy Hover early this month. “We have a baseline for doing 35 or so permits, and will keep updating the information and look for better ways to make it easier.”

The county also got an earful from well-drillers, real estate agents, building contractors and members of the public frustrated that the de facto moratorium threatened their livelihoods or interrupted their housing plans.

“We’re trying not to hold up building for spring,” said Hover.

The Methow and the Okanogan watersheds cover most of Okanogan County. The Methow watershed has been studied more extensively and, more important, has a specific allocation in state law of 2 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) for each of seven reaches, which translates to about 800 gallons per minute.

Most estimates put residential water use at 710 gallons per day, which includes some outside use, according to testimony at the county’s hearings on water availability. For indoor use only, estimates are 300 gallons per day.

Concern is much greater about a straightforward process for evaluating water availability in the Okanogan, which has no comparable water allocation, said Huston. While there is a watershed plan, the area has not been studied as extensively as the Methow.

Planning Department staff have been amassing well logs from Ecology’s database, but have found them less useful than they had hoped, said Huston. The majority of wells are listed only by quarter section, with few parcel numbers. Moreover, it is not clear whether the wells are used for residences, irrigation or livestock, he said.

There are places in the Okanogan where people will not be able to build, said Hover, although he couldn’t say where or how many. “That is the reality of the situation we face — there has to be so much water in the river,” he said. “Probably there are some places where water’s scarce and the county has to be mindful.”

Because many water bodies in the Okanogan are already over-appropriated, in its 2009 basin plan the Okanogan Watershed Planning Unit recommended creating a water bank for water rights that are not being used, said Tim Trohimovich, an attorney with Futurewise, an environmental group that was a party to the Hirst lawsuit.

The situation is complicated, said Hover. “Maybe on paper, there’s no water, but physically, there is,” he said. He said setting up water banks should help, and expected that people will also come forward to sell water rights.

But Hover remains concerned about hurdles in state law that affect the county’s ability to resolve these issues. For example, for the sale of water rights to help, you need to be able to move water both up and downstream, he said. At present, water can only be moved downriver.

“It’s a major conundrum that the Supreme Court dealt to us, instead of taking a thoughtful approach,” said Hover.

Uses can be OKed

Ecology has made the county’s job fairly straightforward for the Methow because of the 2 cfs reserved for the Methow River, said Trohimovich. Until those reserves are exhausted, the county can approve new water uses. “Ecology was forward-thinking when they set up the reserve,” he said. While there are some other reserves of water in the state, they are not common, he said.

Instream flows — water for rivers — are senior to other water rights, and Ecology has required junior water-right holders in both the Methow and Okanogan watersheds to curtail their use when flows are very low, said Trohimovich.

Significantly, the Methow instream-flow rule guaranteed both water for the Methow River and the reserve for the seven reaches, meaning that neither one is senior, said Trohimovich.

Futurewise is a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit against Okanogan County over its comprehensive plan and zoning code, charging that the county does not protect water quality and quantity, and that the plans allow more lots than the water can serve.

Futurewise isn’t seeking to halt all development, but wants to be sure people are protected, said Trohimovich. “You can’t create lots and sell to innocent purchasers without new water. It’s basic consumer protection,” he said.

Meanwhile, the county has started going through completed questionnaires from applicants for building permits, who must now provide information about water availability, well logs and distance from water bodies. Now the county can begin the vetting, said Hover. “When somebody says the water flows uphill, you know that’s not true,” he said.

“It’s a new process, not necessarily different decisions,” said Huston.