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 more than 11 percent of summertime water use to domestic wells. 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 connected to shallow groundwater beneath its streambed. So two out of every three years or so, the Little Spokane’s flows fall below the state-mandated minimums 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 High Country News.

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