Fight over household wells highlights rural growing pains

Can Washington balance development with the needs of rivers, fish and water users?

 

In 2016, a Washington Supreme Court ruling put the brakes on rural homebuilding in several areas across the state. The so-called Hirst decision required counties to prove that new household wells wouldn’t drain needed water from nearby streams before they issued building permits. But last month, state legislators, under pressure from landowners and building and realtors’ associations, passed a bill that, with some caveats, allows new wells. The challenge of balancing rural growth with the needs of other water users and the environment extends far beyond Washington state. How it plays out here and across the region will determine how many more people can join the ranks of the millions of rural Westerners who rely on domestic water wells.

Household wells in the Little Spokane River Basin, in northeast Washington, are contributing to low flows in the river.
Courtesy of Beacon Hill Spokane

In Washington, such wells account for only about 1 percent of the water consumed statewide during the summer, but depending on their location, their impacts can loom much larger. In Spokane County, for example, the Washington Department of Ecology attributes . But even though domestic wells are a major part of the state’s water system — and, in some places, can draw down nearby creeks — they aren’t regulated as strictly as they could be.

Though wells are subject to water law that says that, during shortages, newer uses should be cut back in favor of more senior ones, the Washington Department of Ecology has never shut down a household well for affecting an older water right. “I think they’re really the last vestige of the Wild West as far as how water gets used,” says Dan Von Seggern, the staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy in Seattle.

The Hirst decision temporarily tamed that watery Wild West by requiring counties to show that water was legally available before new wells were drilled. But the ruling also triggered pockets of turmoil in several watersheds across the state, because it stopped people from building homes on land they’d already purchased.

“We just kind of had to go into a holding pattern,” says Chris Basham, who, with his wife, Sara, wanted to build an energy-efficient home north of Spokane. Now, a year and a half after they had hoped to be living on 10 acres amid the pines, they have yet to begin building.

Thanks in part to stories like this, in 2017, some state legislators refused to pass a $4 billion budget for projects like school and sewer repairs unless rural areas were reopened to well-drilling. The political mayhem dragged on through three special legislative sessions; the final one ended in July without a resolution.

This year, though, legislators acted quickly, passing a bill on Jan. 18 that requires local governments in several watersheds to develop plans to compensate for new wells. But the mitigation plans won’t go into effect for another one to three years, and in the meantime, new wells can once again be drilled in basins where development had been halted. However, the legislation also includes a new $500 well-drilling fee and a tighter cap on water use in some watersheds. Mary Verner, the manager of the Department of Ecology’s water resources program, says those provisions appear to be designed to “ensure that it’s not just a free-for-all until these watershed plans are adopted.”

But the new legislation may perpetuate an old West Coast conundrum: Where environmental needs and development collide, salmon can easily become collateral damage. Jeff Dickison, a policy analyst and the assistant natural resources director for the Squaxin Island Tribe in south Puget Sound, argues that the bill threatens streams — and the fish that live there — by unraveling the Hirst ruling’s environmental safeguards. “Well, the new bill screws it up royally,” Dickison says, because well drilling near already dwindling steelhead and salmon streams can now resume.

In one watershed, the legal battle has also discouraged many rural residents from taking advantage of a program that could help address the underlying conflict over limited water. Thousands of household wells dot the landscape around the Little Spokane River, nestled between the Huckleberry Range and the Selkirk Mountains in the northeastern corner of Washington. Many of those wells siphon off the river, which is . So two out of every three years or so, the Little Spokane’s flows for protecting fish and the environment, creating a clash between nature and further development.

To address that conflict, Spokane County, where most of the wells in the Little Spokane Basin are located, organized a water bank. By buying large water rights, then splitting them into smaller chunks to be sold to people building homes, the bank could allow for new wells while protecting the river from being drained. But in mid-January, the new bill made joining the water bank an unnecessary expense. Out of 34 people who had signed up for the program, only 10 bought into it. Furthermore, says Mike Hermanson, the water resources manager for the county, the county is offering those purchasers refunds. “I imagine many will take them,” he says.

Note: The story has been updated to clarify that the Department of Ecology commented on, but did not help design, provisions in the new legislation.

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at NewTowncarShare News.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Siskiyou Field Institute (SFI) delivers outdoor science and natural history educational programs to adults and youth. SFIs Deer Creek Center (DCC) houses our southwest Oregon...
  • Sierra Club is looking for a community organizer who can help us protect grizzly bears and other wildlife species in the Northern Rockies region. This...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • This position provides professional* real estate services for CPW and the Commission to include acting as an official representative in real property transactions and negotiations...
  • 16' Long x 7' Wide x 7',fully equipped,top of line,$7000 sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • Sycamore Land Trust, a 501(c)(3) located in Bloomington, IN, is seeking an exceptionally qualified, motivated candidates for Executive Director.
  • The Director of Marketing and Communications will plan and lead execution of the NFF external marketing and communications efforts. The position will provide strategic and...
  • Development and Communications Coordinator for HawkWatch International. Emphasis on grant writing and fundraising through various social media platforms. Salary range $35,000-$38,000.
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is hiring a full-time Restoration Program Coordinator based in Escalante, Utah. gsenm.org
  • Work passionately on behalf of the finest hiking and equestrian trail in the Western United States. Work for the Pacific Crest Trail Association! The Pacific...
  • 7.58 Acres in Delta County for $198,000. and a contiguous 25 acre parcel of land zoned agricultural is available in Montrose county for an additional...
  • in Moab, UT start in Spring. Naturalist, River Guides, Camp Cooks, Internships available. Details at cfimoab.org/employment.
  • Friends of the San Juans is looking for an experienced attorney. Details at: http://sanjuans.org/2018/09/26/staff-attorney-fall-2018/
  • 25 acre in native grasses. Cedar draw. Year-round spring. At foot of Moscow Mnt, ID, 7 miles from town.
  • Custom-built pumice home, endless views, 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Taos Real Estate, 575-758-1924, https://hcne.ws/highdeserthaven
  • 5,000 square foot sustainable home on 30 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services...
  • 541-987-2363, [email protected] www.dukewarnerrealtyofeasternoregon.com
  • Reporting to the Board of Directors (Board), the Executive Director (ED) has overall operational responsibility for FoGB staff, programs, expansion, and execution of the mission....