Study period stops creation of new lots
Land in the Methow Valley in areas restricted from new water uses will be off-limits for subdivision under an interim rule adopted by the Okanogan County commissioners.
The commissioners designated the restricted basins — 14 small streams and 16 lakes that have no more water available for building — as a water-availability study area on April 1.
The commissioners can make interim revisions to the county code without a public hearing, but they must take public comment and hold a hearing within 60 days. That hearing will be on April 29.
Adopting interim changes prevents people from trying to circumvent new restrictions by rushing to submit land-use applications before changes take effect, said Perry Huston, the county’s planning director.
The study of water availability in these basins is different from the one other area in the county — the Tunk Valley, northeast of Omak — the commissioners authorized for study last year. That’s because there is no question as to whether water is available from these restricted streams and lakes, since further withdrawals were barred by the 1976 “Methow Rule” for the watershed, said Huston.
“The rule has closed these waters to further appropriation — there’s no point to study them,” he said. Restricted areas include parts of the Wolf Creek, Bear Creek and Beaver Creek watersheds.
The formal study could also help address another issue in these restricted basins, since construction of new houses was largely halted last fall by a decision from the state Department of Ecology. Ecology determined it can no longer permit new wells to be drilled for residential use in these areas, because agency hydrologists can’t guarantee that drilling a well wouldn’t end up sucking water from the closed stream or lake.
Before that, Ecology had allowed new wells if they were drilled into bedrock, which the agency believed wasn’t in continuity with the closed stream. New scientific research and court decisions caused Ecology to alter that stance.
Creating this study area will allow the county to explore solutions that could ultimately give people a way to build, said Huston. The county has been investigating mitigations such as cisterns for water storage or replenishing the aquifer with water from outside the closed basin.
“The primary thing is that this stops subdivisions,” said Huston, who said the Planning Department will not accept any new applications to create new lots. The amendments to the code essentially make the county’s process consistent with Ecology’s instream-flow rules, he said.
Effects on building permits
The code amendment clarifies the process for new building permits, but doesn’t really alter anything since Ecology’s decision. People will only be able to get a building permit for a new house in one of the restricted watersheds if they can demonstrate that water was already being used for a household. That would mean replacing an existing residence or constructing a house where people had already been using water for a trailer or other temporary dwelling as they prepared to build, said Huston.
By not accepting any new applications for subdivisions, the county avoids giving people hoping for a policy change any expectation that their application could be “vested” to a certain date, said Huston.
The study period will also give the county a chance to evaluate whether the Methow Rule should be changed in any way. Changing the rule would entail a more extensive process involving the Legislature.
After the public hearing, the county commissioners can repeal the interim controls or leave them in place. The county’s planning commission will further study the code changes and decide whether to recommend a permanent amendment, said Huston. Planning commissioners will also consider ways to let people build in these areas and potential changes to the Methow rule. Any proposal will go through the standard environmental review.
The county commissioners approved the option of designating study areas last year to provide a way of evaluating water supplies and managing development accordingly. To avoid becoming a de facto moratorium, study areas can last for up to two years, said Huston. They can be extended only for specific reasons.
People can comment on the designation of the Methow’s restricted areas as a water-study area at a public hearing in the commissioners’ auditorium in Okanogan on Monday, April 29, at 1:30 p.m. They can also submit comments in advance to Laleña Johns at email@example.com.
The interim code revisions are available on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning, through the link in the box on the far right in the second row that says “17A400 Water Availability Study Areas.” After clicking on the link, click on the top-left box that starts with “Okanogan County Ordinance 2019-5.”