Bedrock drilling in closed basins limited by state agency’s action
Okanogan County officials are looking at options to cope with a recent decision by the state Department of Ecology that could render more than 1,000 lots in the Methow Valley unbuildable. The lots are in so-called closed basins, streams and lakes defined as maxed out in the 1976 rule for the Methow River basin.
“I can’t summarize the steps we’re taking now, because it’s really in flux,” said Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover. “It really depends on the information from Ecology about the original intent of the [Methow] rule.”
The Okanogan County Planning Department has been fielding calls daily from property owners concerned they won’t be able to build, said Hover. Well-drillers have also been calling the county, trying to understand what Ecology’s decision means.
For now, the county’s options are limited. Okanogan County Public Health is researching alternative ways of providing safe drinking water, primarily by using cisterns or holding tanks. The county’s environmental health staff briefed the Board of Health last week.
At present, the county allows holding tanks only for short-term use, for a maximum of 60 days — total — a year, said J.J. Bellinger, an environmental health specialist for the county. The restriction is recorded on the property deed.
Using a holding tank for water year-round is not straightforward, said Bellinger. The tanks wouldn’t collect rain or snow, but would be supplied by truck.
Concerns include sizing a tank, which can’t be too small — it could run out of water — or too large — the water could develop impurities. “Nobody likes to pop the hatch and see funny green things in there,” said Bellinger.
Users also need to ensure that the water comes from a legal source. “We’d need proof of a contract to get the water from point A to point B. ‘A’ needs to be legal and potable,” said Bellinger.
Even with a water source, there’s no guarantee that a truck could drive to the water tank on icy or muddy roads. “Hauling water is not exactly a wonderful solution for year-round,” said Bellinger. “A lot of folks only think of the summer.”
Okanogan County doesn’t currently allow holding tanks to supply households year-round, but the state does, and some counties allow tanks.
“Nothing’s been worked out or decided. We let the board know our concerns,” said Bellinger.
History of rule?
“Ecology dropped a bomb on us,” Hover told the Methow Watershed Council last week. Ecology used to allow people to drill a well into bedrock to protect the streams, he said. But Ecology said it can no longer be certain that these bedrock wells won’t suck water from the streams, so the agency stopped allowing them.
Even people who already have wells on these lots can’t use them for a house if the water has never been put to “beneficial use” — that is, hasn’t already been used for a residence.
Hover and the county’s planning staff took a quick look to see how many parcels would be affected by Ecology’s new approach, and found 1,117 lots with no “improved value” — that is, no buildings — in one of the 30 closed basins. Fourteen streams and 16 lakes, including Wolf Creek, Bear Creek and Beaver Creek, are closed.
Hover emphasized that the number is a cursory estimate. It misses parcels with a garage but no residence, as well as parcels with wells that haven’t been used. It also doesn’t take into account the even-greater number of lots that could be created.
The county is researching the history of the water rule. Hover pointed to an Ecology report from 1976 that appears to provide a basis for the Methow rule. It refers to streams that were considered over-allocated for irrigation during the summer, but not for household use. In fact, the report mentions exceptions for indoor use, he said.
For instance, the report says, “The department’s policy is that people are entitled not only to household water, but also to sufficient water to maintain a pleasant yard,” except when water use would “seriously impair either the aesthetic or fisheries resource values.”
In those cases, applications for domestic supply would be denied, “except to the extent that such waters are needed for household supply,” according to the report. That seemingly contradictory language suggests to Hover that there’s lots of research to do.
Ecology’s decision is based on changes in case law and new scientific understanding. “The general overarching decision is that we no longer are certain these wells don’t impact these tributaries,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager for Ecology’s central regional office.
Impacts on real estate
The lack of certainty is a concern for people in the real estate industry. It affects people who own property approved under one set of rules — rules that let them dig a well and build a house — who now find the rules have changed, said Dave Thomsen, senior managing broker with Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty.
“How do you make it right unless you buy the land at fair-market value? At this time, it’s a significant potential loss for the property owners,” said Thomsen.
“It’s terribly unfair and, at the same time, I’m not in a position to determine if it’s right or wrong,” said Thomsen. “But it’s terrible to be caught in that position. As a society, we should all be concerned about how our neighbors are affected.”
“This would definitely impact the value of property — it’s common sense,” said Okanogan County Assessor Scott Furman. Although the assessor’s office expects to hear from taxpayers, they need complete information before changing property valuation, he said.
Some well drillers have been blindsided by Ecology’s decision. Charles Miller, owner of MVM Quality Drilling, said he still has nothing in writing from Ecology advising him of the new policy. He also hasn’t received copies of the three basin maps Ecology has revised.
Until now, getting a permit to drill in closed basins has been straightforward, requiring documentation of how they’ll meet the mechanical requirements to seal off the shallow aquifer, said Miller. Miller has never had one denied, but he’s still waiting for a response from Ecology to an application submitted months ago for a well in French Creek.
Drilling into bedrock means sealing off the hole with steel casing, which is itself sealed with clay as the drill penetrates the alluvium — the layer of unconsolidated sand, gravel and loose materials — until it hits bedrock. Once drillers reach bedrock, they drill an open hole until they hit water.
“Depending on the standard of continuity or connectivity, it’s impossible for a geologist — or anyone — to say that, at the molecular level, there’s no continuity,” said Miller. “But mechanically, [drilling into bedrock] eliminates, to the 99th degree, the potential for connectivity.”
Drilling into bedrock — into what’s called a fracture-controlled aquifer — is common, depending on the geology of the site. What’s different is having to drill a well like that 25 feet from a creek, said Miller.
The commissioners and the Methow Watershed Council are planning a series of public meetings early next year to explain the water limitations that led to Ecology’s decision, as well as the steps the county is taking to find a solution. The county has asked Ecology to send a representative, but doesn’t have a confirmation yet. Dates for the meetings have not been set.