County proposal too complicated, costly, commissioners told
By Marcy Stamper
Requiring any residents who want to build a house to also build a case to show they have enough water and the right to use it would be burdensome, costly and time-consuming, a dozen citizens told the Okanogan County commissioners this week.
Many at the packed public hearing on Monday (Dec. 19) said state law already allocates enough water to the Methow basin.
The speakers were commenting on the county’s proposal to have all applicants for new water uses present their case to the county’s hearing examiner. The county is considering this approach to comply with a recent state Supreme Court ruling that requires anyone planning a new use of water to show the water is physically and legally available. People also must prove their water use wouldn’t impair any senior water rights, which includes instream flows for fish.
The people who testified told commissioners Jim DeTro and Ray Campbell that the county should supply data on water availability for watersheds throughout the county, rather than asking every potential developer to prove there is water for each lot in question. Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy was absent.
The water issue has generated considerable interest — Monday’s hearing drew some 90 attendees, although most just listened. It has drawn particular concern from well drillers and real estate agents, who told the commissioners they are already feeling economic impacts from the ambiguity over water. The county has put new building permits on hold while it works out a system for complying with the Supreme Court ruling.
Domestic water is the key to the county’s growth and tax revenue, said the president of the state’s well driller association, who called the county’s proposal an “overreaction.” Not only would developing property not impair water availability, but it also could provide a net hydrological benefit because water used in a house can recharge the aquifer, he said.
“No one has ever demonstrated that any of the tens of thousands of wells drilled in Okanogan County has impacted instream flows,” said Chester LaFontaine, the co-owner of Okanogan Drilling. “Otherwise, the process you’ve got is going to be a killer on property values — you’re going to impact well drillers and small-business people.”
Several real estate agents said uncertainty created by the high court ruling had already affected property values across the state and caused transactions to fall apart. “It’s disheartening to have to hand back the check I rely on to feed my family,” said one.
Many speakers urged the commissioners to draw on existing water studies and on research done by the Methow Watershed Council. They also pointed to state law that sets minimum river and stream flows but allocates a certain amount of surface water to seven reaches in the Methow basin for beneficial uses.
Although some water assessments have been done in the Okanogan basin, people said more in-depth studies are needed.
Methow Valley resident Ron Perrow, a former member of the watershed council, called the county’s proposal “unnecessary, inappropriate and confusing.” He suggested that some people were trying to use the water issue as “a surrogate for planning and zoning” controls.
Gregg Knott, chair of the Methow Watershed Council, was not speaking on behalf of the council. But he directed the commissioners to “a large body of professional opinion” that the 2 cubic feet per second (cfs) allocated to the Methow by state law is still available. A cfs is about 7-1/2 gallons per second (the volume of water 1 foot high and 1 foot wide that would flow a distance of 1 foot in one second).
The high court’s decision (often called “Hirst,” for the lead plaintiff) applies to what are called “permit-exempt wells,” which are used for most single-family homes in the county. State law allows people to use these wells for up to 5,000 gallons per day for domestic use (cooking and bathing), 5,000 gallons for industrial or commercial use, and to water a half-acre garden or lawn as well as livestock.
Some people question whether the average yearly withdrawal from one of these wells is 5,000 gallons per day. Research cited by Knott put it closer to 710 gallons.
The county will gather as much information as possible about water availability on individual lots and basins throughout the county to assist citizens, said Perry Huston, the county’s planning director. They also plan to make well logs, hydrology studies, and weather and precipitation statistics available. The county hopes to gather the data by the end of January, he said.
But several speakers said merely gathering this information is not enough. The county has to make the process easy for its citizens, without requiring everyone to make a case to the hearing examiner, they said.
Brian de Place, executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), said the county should incorporate water adequacy in its land-use planning and determine how much water is available for development in specific basins.
Whatever the commissioners decide, the county needs to adopt a new process, since the court’s ruling transferred the responsibility for certifying there’s enough water to the counties from the state, said Huston.
When the commissioners first began studying the Hirst ruling, their first and foremost concern was not to overburden citizens, said DeTro after the testimony. They believe that the allocation of water to the seven Methow reaches still stands, he said.
The county is already in litigation over how it handles water in its comp plan and zoning code by the same organization [Futurewise] that was successful in Hirst, said Campbell. “We’ve been set up here to be very careful in how we move forward,” he said.
A lawsuit filed against the county by MVCC and Futurewise for not explicitly addressing water quantity and quality in its comprehensive plan and zoning code is pending.
The emergency ordinance with the proposed approach to water is available on the planning department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning. Click on the link for “Ordinance 2016-5” (“An ordinance pertaining to land use decisions requiring the use of water from other than a certificated source”) next to “Draft Title 20: Development Permit Procedures and Administration.”
The commissioners continued their hearing and deliberations to Wednesday (Dec. 28) at 2:30 p.m. Oral testimony is closed, but people can still comment in writing to email@example.com. For more information, contact Huston at (509) 422-7218.
The swearing in of newly elected commissioners Andy Hover and Chris Branch is scheduled for Dec. 30.