By Marcy Stamper
Areas in Okanogan County could be off-limits for new subdivisions while the county studies whether there is enough water to accommodate additional development.
The county commissioners are close to a final decision on a new ordinance that would give them the authority to create zone overlays that impose special restrictions based on information about drinking-water supplies — or a lack of information.
A proposal to halt the creation of new lots could come from the commissioners, a county department such as building or planning, or a member of the public or an organization.
The county has already heard concerns about the Lower Valley reach, said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston. Based on a study done for the Methow Watershed Council in 2011, the Lower Valley could run out of water if all existing lots were built on, leaving 1,100 new houses without a water supply.
In 1976, the Methow watershed was divided into seven reaches, each of which received an allocation of 2 cubic feet per second of surface water. The reaches follow geographic boundaries but vary considerably in size and demand for water.
The Lower Valley reach, which extends from Twisp to Pateros, is not only the largest, but also more arid than areas higher in the watershed. In addition, Lower Valley zoning has allowed 1-acre lots for many years, resulting in more subdivision. There has been virtually no development in the Early Winters reach above Mazama.
A water-availability study could be triggered by neighboring homeowners or water-right holders concerned that a new water use could impair their water, said County Commissioner Andy Hover. If the commissioners believed the concern was valid, they could order a study to see if water in the sub-basin can support current zoning, he said.
“It’s not the commissioners’ right to say we’ll do a study,” said Hover. “We need to have pre-existing information or information brought to us.”
The Methow Valley Citizens Council has raised concerns about the Lower Valley, and others have suggested that the Tunk Valley, in the east-central part of the county, cannot support additional growth, said Huston.
Designating a study area would not affect building on existing lots, although people who plan to use a well for domestic water still need to demonstrate they have adequate water and the legal right to use it. Okanogan County has been doing water-availability reviews on all new applications for building permits since a 2016 state Supreme Court decision known as Hirst.
Having the ability to create study areas that could lower density won’t take away anyone’s rights, said Hover. “Study areas can’t be used as a tool to stop growth,” he said.
The proposed ordinance has been amended after public input and a legal review. A study — and the accompanying suspension of new subdivisions — would be limited to two years and could only be extended if there were proof of substantial progress.
A study area would coincide with basin or sub-basin boundaries. There will be specific checkpoints to monitor progress.
Hover and Huston said they were unaware of any other counties taking a similar approach. Huston said he proposed the studies when the commissioners were seeking a way to address the potential impact of future subdivisions on limited water supplies.
A buildable-lands analysis could be done by the county’s planning department, but the county would probably hire a consultant for a more in-depth hydrological study, said Huston.
The county has been in discussions with the state Department of Ecology about the potential for funding to support these studies. Ecology has committed $60,000 to the county for other water-related projects — to update its well-tracking system and work on the Okanogan Watershed plan, although the contract is not finalized, said Huston.
A means for tracking all existing wells and connecting each one to a specific parcel is necessary for any decision about water availability said Huston. Records are sketchy for some older wells — the county knows only that they exist, but doesn’t have a precise location, he said.
Even in a study area, certain types of subdivisions could go forward, including those where drinking water will come from an existing water right or a water bank.
One possible outcome of a study would be to change zoning to lower the density — for example, by switching an area from a minimum of 5 acres to 20 acres. It could also require a water bank for new development, said Huston.