Ecology’s policy creates confusion in the Methow Valley
Okanogan County now has a written explanation of a new Department of Ecology policy that limits wells in some parts of the Methow Valley.
Two months ago, the county learned in a phone call with Ecology that the state agency can no longer allow people who own specific parcels near small streams and lakes to drill a well for household water.
The decision — based on new science, court rulings and recent legislation — could affect more than a thousand parcels in the valley, according to County Commissioner Andy Hover. Ecology’s new approach has left the commissioners, planning and public health staff with lots of questions.
Now the county has a two-page letter from the section manager of Ecology’s Water Resources Program outlining their “technical and policy position” on the use of water from 30 streams and lakes that are considered overappropriated — in essence, maxed out.
The Dec. 4 letter from Trevor Hutton explains that Ecology can no longer be certain that drilling a well deep into bedrock prevents the well from sucking water from the stream or lake. The decision changes the approach Ecology has used for about three decades.
Ecology says that water near the surface of the ground, which would normally have flowed into the stream, could instead get drawn into the cracks in the bedrock, deep below the surface. This creates “an indirect hydraulic connection to the closed stream,” wrote Hutton.
“While these wells draw from an aquifer that may or may not be in direct hydraulic continuity with the closed tributary, these fractured bedrock systems capture water during certain times of the year that would otherwise have discharged to the closed tributary stream through near-surface runoff. For example, a well drilled into a bedrock fracture and pumped for domestic use draws down the water stored in that fracture system, creating a void in the aquifer. This void within the bedrock fracture captures water that ordinarily would have flowed into the closed tributary,” wrote Hutton.
Hutton acknowledged that this was not Ecology’s “traditional understanding of ‘hydraulic connectivity.’” But in light of court rulings and updated standards, Ecology says it has to be sure that any water used for a house is legally available. And the agency can no longer say with certainty that it is, he said.
To avoid drawing from the over-appropriated streams and lakes, Ecology had allowed people to drill bedrock wells in 30 basins listed in the state’s Methow Rule. The rule was adopted in 1976 for surface water and expanded to include groundwater in 1991.
The list includes most tributaries to the Methow River, including Wolf Creek, French Creek and Beaver Creek. It also applies to 16 lakes — most in the high country — but also Davis, Pearrygin and Patterson.
Just because a stream or lake is on the list, it doesn’t mean that someone can’t build a house in the basin associated with it. In fact, Ecology has been reviewing the hydrogeology of some of these basins and redrawing maps to show which areas are closed to new water uses and which aren’t. In some cases, the closed areas have gotten smaller.
These closed tributaries typically run downhill toward the Methow River. In the analysis provided with the new maps, Ecology said it’s clear that wells closer to the Methow River draw from the main river aquifer, not the small creek. Wells in these areas would therefore be acceptable, they said.
Ecology’s decision doesn’t affect wells that draw from the main rivers in the Methow — the Methow, Chewuch or Twisp.
Even where Ecology thinks a hydraulic connection is unlikely, the chance that even a small amount of water could be drawn from the creek means Ecology can’t approve wells.
“Due to lack of certainty that water is legally available, Ecology will no longer authorize the construction of new wells in the bedrock aquifers of the closed tributary basins,” said Hutton.
In the past, property owners could submit evidence to Ecology that their well wasn’t drawing from the closed stream as part of an application to drill a well. Hutton said Ecology will no longer consider these situations unless the water user provides a way to mitigate for the new use.
Ecology’s new approach affects any new water use in these areas — even if a well has existed for years — if the well has never been put to “beneficial use” to supply a household. It doesn’t affect wells already being used for a house, and these people will be permitted to drill a replacement well in the same aquifer, said Hutton.
Ecology hasn’t changed the rule or its interpretation of it. All that’s changed is Ecology’s determination that it can’t be absolutely certain that water isn’t coming from the closed tributary, said Perry Huston, the county’s planning director.
There are no building permits pending in the affected parts of the basins, said Huston. But there are 1,117 lots without buildings, and more with just a garage or a well that hasn’t been put to use. Current zoning allows many more lots to be created in these areas.
Ecology recognizes that the new approach could have a substantial effect on people who own property that they won’t be able to develop.
“We are aware of and sensitive to the hardship that these circumstances cause landowners who may have had plans to build homes reliant upon permit-exempt domestic wells,” wrote Sutton. “While future options for these properties are limited, Ecology remains committed to working with the County to address the water resource needs of the County and its citizens.”
That’s little comfort to affected property owners and well drillers. “When you sit back, take a deep breath, and consider the devaluation of that land when there’s no water — the new value is missing a comma, and a zero or two,” said Charles Miller, owner of MVM Quality Drilling.
Miller is accustomed to providing paperwork to Ecology that explains how he’ll keep water from being sucked from the stream as he drills down to bedrock. Historically, he drills four or five of these wells a year and never had one denied. Ecology said about 10 wells have been drilled each year in these basins.
“If the degree of certainty [that there’s no connectivity with the stream] has to be at the molecular level, then they’re right,” said Miller.
While Miller acknowledged that he has “a horse in this race,” he said he’s concerned about the broader economic impact on the county.
Okanogan County officials have been researching options that would allow people to build. Among the approaches they’re investigating is trucking water to a holding tank and water storage and mitigation. They don’t know how to approach the closed basins that Ecology hasn’t re-evaluated (which are the bulk of the affected areas), said Huston.
Ecology wants to keep working with the county. “I encourage you to continue this dialogue with us as we seek to find viable solutions that allow for rural water supplies in areas with limited resources,” wrote Hutton.
The Methow Watershed Council has been working with the commissioners and Ecology on an informational meeting about the well restrictions. Hutton has agreed to come to the Methow Valley for a meeting early next year. The date hasn’t been set.