By Marcy Stamper
The Washington Department of Ecology has joined a lawsuit against Okanogan County, saying that the county’s new comprehensive plan allows additional development but does not make sure there is enough water to support it.
Ecology’s friend-of-the-court brief also charges that the comp plan and accompanying zoning code do not protect water quality.
Ecology’s brief, filed Sept. 22, backs the central arguments in a lawsuit filed against the county by the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Futurewise in January. All three entities say that converting many areas of the county to a high-density rural zone could allow more residential development than the county’s limited water resources can support.
“It’s not common, but Ecology has intervened on occasion when we’re concerned about the legal and physical availability of water related to development,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager for Ecology’s central regional office. “We routinely comment and act when we feel it’s important.”
Ecology has had to cut off water to junior-water-right holders in the Methow and Okanogan river basins repeatedly over the past five years, wrote Alan Reichman, senior counsel with the Washington Attorney General’s office, in the brief for Ecology.
Without adequate planning, the county could be putting future homeowners at risk of having their water shut off to preserve water for fish or irrigators, said Redfield-Wilder. Water subject to shut-off is not considered adequate for residential use by the Washington Department of Health, said Reichman.
County: use not intensified
In a brief filed for Okanogan County in June, Sandy Mackie, a special deputy prosecutor for the county, argued that the comp plan does not intensify use. The county’s hearing examiner upheld the plan when he found the county’s growth rate is very slow and that the growth suggested by the appellants is “more fantastic than probable,” according to the county’s brief.
The county argues that MVCC and Futurewise do not even have standing to bring the suit, since they have not shown that they have suffered actual injury as a result of the comp plan.
The county’s interim zoning ordinance does not increase density but in fact preserves the status quo, wrote Mackie. In some areas, the county’s new plan actually reduces density, rather than increasing it, he said.
Ecology and the two environmental groups also charge that Okanogan County failed to do an adequate environmental analysis of the impact of the zoning changes. The county’s environmental analysis provides only “bare-bones information” about water availability, wrote Reichman.
The county’s brief says that an in-depth environmental impact statement is not required if there is no increase in density or intensity of use.
Ecology is also concerned that development could contaminate water. “…[R]ural development at this density could cause adverse impacts on water quality from, among other things, increased storm water runoff and septic discharge,” wrote Reichman.
The scarcity of water does not mean that there can be no new development, but in some areas any new water use must be offset by reductions elsewhere — often through the purchase of existing water rights, said Redfield-Wilder.
Ecology tried to get the county to address these concerns while the comp plan was still under review, outlining them in more than one letter to the county.
Ecology is only addressing the water issue; the agency is not addressing claims by MVCC and Futurewise that the county did not adequately designate agricultural and forest lands in the comp plan.
The case stems from a 2014 appeal by MVCC and Futurewise that argued that the plan’s assessment of water availability and other resources was inadequate. The county’s environmental review was upheld by the county’s hearing examiner in November. The groups appealed the hearing examiner’s decision to Okanogan County Superior Court.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson accepted Ecology’s involvement in the case on Oct. 2. Oral arguments are scheduled in Okanogan County Superior Court before Judge Christopher Culp on Nov. 23.