Rural citizens again able to use wells for homebuilding, with new limits and conditions

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers approved a deal Thursday to end the long-running water dispute that has brought rural construction to a standstill in many areas of the state, including Whatcom County.
 
Republicans and Democrats passed a measure Thursday night in the state House and Senate creating new rules for household wells, which are crucial for new development in areas where city water does not reach.
 
In October 2016 state Supreme Court ruling directed to Whatcom County, commonly called the Hirst case, suddenly changed the game for rural property owners and county planning departments. Some counties, including Whatcom, temporarily stopped issuing permits for new projects requiring wells, creating uncertainty for lenders and the possibility of plummeting land values.
 
The Legislature’s fix to the Hirst decision, ESSB 6091, gives a green light to new construction, said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and ends a debate that has lasted a year. 
 
“Although the new rules go further than necessary, it was the best deal we could get this year, and it will allow construction to proceed across Whatcom County and the entire state. We’ve brought relief to thousands of property owners who were threatened by Hirst, and that’s what counts.”
 
42nd District Reps. Vince Buys and Luanne Van Werven also voted in favor of 6091, which passed 66-30 in the House and 35-14 in the Senate. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill Friday.
 
“Those of us who represent rural Washington have been saying for more than a year now that our communities need real relief — a solution that will grant rural property owners the same privileges as urban dwellers,” said Buys, R-Lynden. “Once this bill goes into effect, if you own land; if you have a well, you can start building tomorrow.”
 
Under the bill, water usage will be set at a minimum of 950 to 3,000 gallons per day, depending on the watershed, and existing wells will be grandfathered in, according to a press release from Buys.
 
House Republican negotiators, including Buys, call the bill an overall success, finally restoring some certainty to rural families.
 
While the Hirst decision was a one-size-fits-all approach across the state, this compromise ensures rural citizens will be able to access water for homebuilding at an affordable level, said Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, another negotiator.
 
In some Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs), landowners will pay an additional $500 when submitting a building permit and be able to use 3,000 gallons per day. In other WRIAs, landowners will pay the same fee, but must manage storm water and may use only up to 950 gallons per day, perhaps less in drought conditions. Water needed for wildfire buffers will be permitted.
 
In watersheds including WRIA 1 in Whatcom County, local committees will be required to work together with the state Department of Ecology over the next five years to develop “watershed restoration and enhancement” (WRE) plans that the state must approve.
 
The legislation also provides for $300 million to be spent over 15 years for projects to improve instream flows, and stream restoration and enhancement.
 
Taylor and Buys say they have concerns about the mitigation process, saying it may rely too heavily on bureaucracy and not enough on citizen input.
 
“Time will tell,” Taylor said.
 
The Building Industry Association of Whatcom County was deciphering the impacts on Friday and  advising its members by email.