Permits on hold as county collects water data
By Marcy Stamper
The effects of a state Supreme Court decision on water adequacy are already being felt by people around the county — builders, well-drillers, real estate brokers, and ordinary citizens with plans to build a house.
Okanogan County has put building permits on hold while it works out a system for complying with the court ruling in the Whatcom County Hirst case, which 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.
Before it can start issuing building permits again, the county is assembling a vast amount of data on water use. That includes watershed plans, hydrogeology studies and well logs to help in evaluating applications for a new use of water. This week the county’s hearing examiner will take testimony from the public about the county’s two watersheds, the Methow and the Okanogan.
But the hiatus in building permits already has Kathy Goldberg and Michael Notaro’s plans in limbo. Their site analysis was approved last summer, their building plans were ready, and they have a well, said Goldberg. But because the house would constitute a brand-new water use, they had to reapply after the Hirst ruling.
Goldberg and Notaro have invested tens of thousands of dollars beyond the purchase of the land for power and road improvements, but they have to wait until the county’s process plays out before they get the go-ahead to build, she said.
As a managing broker with Blue Star Real Estate in Winthrop, Goldberg also has a professional perspective on the situation. One prospective buyer backed out after being advised that there was no guarantee they could use their well. Goldberg has been negotiating longer feasibility periods to give her clients time to sort out the water situation before they close on a sale.
“Since I’m representing buyers, I have to advise them there’s some risk,” she said.
For Ina Clark, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty, the impacts of the uncertainty over water have been mixed. “I have had clients who’ve chosen to buy land even though the chances are good they won’t get a building permit anytime soon,” she said.
But she’s been advising people who need a place to live right away to look in towns or in developments with group-water systems.
“In real estate, everyone is talking about it — it’s huge, definitely,” said Clark. Land sales already constitute less than one-fifth of total sales, and the doubt about water is just one more blow, she said.
Projects on hold
The issue doesn’t seem to have discouraged buyers with plans for a future vacation retreat, said Clark, who said people seem confident the county will come up with a strategy.
“I’m more concerned for the building trades than real estate,” said Clark. “There are so many families relying on the building trades.”
Indeed, Dave Ekblad of Ekblad Construction said he had a client who was “hours away” from getting a building permit when the county stopped issuing permits in the fall.
Ekblad intervened by explaining to the county planning department that the client had already put water to domestic use while living in a trailer on the property, which allowed the county to issue the permit. “We would have been totally out of work all winter — a big crew,” said Ekblad.
But Stephen Kreider of Country Town Drilling has had a couple of excavation projects canceled. “They had the well drilled and were going to put in power, water, the rest of the stuff — but they put everything on hold because of this question mark,” he said.
“People don’t want to get stuck with these big bills and not be able to build a house — they’re already stuck with the property,” said Kreider.
Lumber yards are also nervously eyeing the situation. No one starts anything new during the winter, said Larry Walsh, owner of Methow Valley Lumber in Twisp. “It will definitely affect the whole valley if they don’t get it resolved,” he said.
For people in construction trades and real estate, it’s too early to know the full effects, since the court’s decision was issued in October, the beginning of the slow winter season for building and real estate sales.
In some way, it’s the potential for disastrous impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods that has reassured many people that the county will find a solution soon.
“There’s a general sense of confidence that, although the county put the brakes on, they will come up with a system that will be beneficial for everyone,” said Clark. “It’s too big of an issue — it can’t be ignored.”
Although the water decision has created uncertainty, Clark said the Hirst ruling provides important protections. “For me, in the big picture, it’s good to look at our water usage and see what development will do in our watershed — as long as it’s done in a thoughtful way,” she said.
She pointed to the benefits of careful planning over the years in what’s called the Methow Review District — from Gold Creek to Mazama. But she noted that the lower valley could feel a bigger impact from the Hirst decision because there are already many smaller lots are fewer restrictions on development there.
Building a record
Last week, the county held the first of three meetings to build a record to help determine how much water there is. Representatives of the Methow Watershed Council, the Okanogan Watershed Planning Unit, well-drillers, the Colville Confederated Tribes, and technical water consultants summarized the comprehensive research and records they provided to the county. The database will include flow readings for rivers and streams, and assessments of water use for homes and irrigation.
Greg Knott, chair of the Methow Watershed Council, noted that the Methow is one of the few basins in the state with a designated water reserve, setting base instream flows for fish and wildlife.
The instream rule for the Methow basin reserved a certain amount of water for out-of-stream uses in the watershed. Because the 1976 rule simultaneously set the minimum flows for rivers and the reserve, neither use of water has priority, according to Knott.