By Marcy Stamper

Certain areas in the county could be off-limits to new development while the county studies water availability there.

The Okanogan County commissioners are considering an amendment to the county code that would curtail certain land uses that rely on wells for drinking water where there are questions about water adequacy. The ordinance only gives the commissioners the authority to create a water-study area; it doesn’t specify where the study areas would be nor outline the details of a study, according to Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston.

The areas could be located wherever the commissioners have concerns about groundwater supplies and whether there is enough water to support additional density or development, said Huston. “There are no specific proposals by the commissioners — or anyone else — to designate areas,” he said.

The study areas would follow subbasin boundaries, which would be reflected in overlays to the county zoning map. An area might be a subbasin under adjudication by the state Department of Ecology, or a basin closed to new water withdrawals, said Huston.

The nature of the study would vary depending on the concerns. For example, it could be created to study the extent to which an aquifer gets recharged, or to conduct an analysis of well logs and buildable lands, said Huston. “It’s whatever level of review the commissioners are looking for,” he said.

Suggestions for study areas could come from members of the public or from county staff, said Huston.

The idea for study areas grew out of the county’s response to a 2016 state Supreme Court decision known as “Hirst.” The Hirst ruling assigned greater responsibilities to counties to determine if there was adequate and legal water for someone to build a house that uses water from a well. These wells are called “permit-exempt” because they don’t require a water right from Ecology.

All building permits were on hold for about six months while Okanogan County developed a process to ensure that someone applying to use a well for a new house wouldn’t adversely affect senior water users. Water in rivers for fish takes priority over new uses.

The county slightly revised the proposed water-study ordinance, which has been under consideration since last fall, after the state Legislature passed a law to address problems created by the Hirst ruling this January. The new law allows people to proceed with development but restricts the amount of water they can use depending on the watershed they’re in.

Huston has determined the proposal would not have an adverse effect on the environment.

Information about the water-study proposal is available on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning by clicking on the box on the far right at the top for “17A400 Water Availability Study Areas.”

The county commissioners will hold a public hearing on the study-area ordinance on Tuesday, May 8, at 6 p.m. in their auditorium in Okanogan. People can provide up to five minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing, or can submit written comments at the hearing or in advance to Laleña Johns at ljohns@co.okanogan.wa.us.