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
  • Take over the reins of a dynamic grassroots social justice group that protects Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive Director. Visit https://winterwildlands.org/executive-director-search/ for...
  • Background: The Birds of Prey NCA Partnership is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Boise, Idaho, which was established in 2015 after in-depth stakeholder input...
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization. cfrog.org
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit dzi.org/careers.
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojaidigital.net.
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • 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...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.

>https://nissan-ask.com.ua
www.nissan-ask.com.ua>https://nissan-ask.com.uahttps://nissan-ask.com.ua<>https://nissan-ask.com.uawww.nissan-ask.com.ua>https://nissan-ask.com.uahttps://nissan-ask.com.uahttps://nissan-ask.com.uawww.nissan-ask.com.ua>https://nissan-ask.com.uahttps://nissan-ask.com.ua<>https://nissan-ask.com.ua
www.nissan-ask.com.ua>https://nissan-ask.com.uahttps://nissan-ask.com.ua<