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Before the state Legislature adjourned, the Senate and House negotiated a deal where a vote would be allowed on SB 5239 – returning to the practice of letting the Department of Ecology decide whether proposed private wells in this state endanger our water supplies. In turn, SB 5239 supporters would vote on a capital projects budget, setting aside money for infrastructure improvement projects across the state. Leaders in the House backpedaled, however, refusing to bring 5239 to a vote as planned, so the Legislature adjourned without action on either item. Both are important.
This is about the water rights half of that deal – the Hirst Decision. Last fall, the state Supreme Court announced in favor of Eric Hirst and others who had sued Whatcom County, challenging approval of new private wells on rural land here.
The Hirst decision is not about water. It’s about stopping people from building homes outside the cities (where water use, interestingly, is less efficient than on rural land).
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Private well/septic systems are the most efficient use of residential water we have. According to Ecology, less than 1 percent of the water drawn in Whatcom County comes from wells. And of that, 80-90 percent is returned to the ground through septic and other drainfields, few of which present any pollution problems. Infiltration of that kind helps support streams and groundwater supplies. New household (exempt) wells, with proper construction, have diminutive (if any) impacts on our water. By comparison, Bellingham uses immense amounts of water and sends its stormwater and treated waste water directly into the bay – where it’s lost to us.
In Hirst, the Supreme Court said counties, not Ecology, are responsible for deciding if there’s adequate water quantity and quality for new wells before issuing a building permit.
What’s wrong with that? Counties don’t have the money or staff resources to make those decisions – so instead we have a moratorium on new wells. People with land that’s been zoned for years for residential use suddenly can’t put in a well, unless they pay $10,000-$30,000 first for a hydrogeologic study to “prove” there will be no effect. We have water associations, but they don’t serve the entire county. They can use rainwater catchment – but there are so few systems in use, there aren’t enough comparable properties to justify banks’ approval of building loans for such houses.
Washington Federal has announced it will no longer lend on properties in Washington that have had wells drilled after Oct. 6, 2016 – as a direct result of the Hirst Decision.
All this has suddenly blocked use of much rural property, land people have been counting on for retirement, for their family’s use, etc.
House Democrats proposed mitigation and a temporary lifting of moratoriums on new wells – but mitigation adds to the cost of housing, and must be done with water obtained “in kind and in place” (if such water exists, why mitigate to begin with?). And our own County Council has rejected a temporary fix, asking what happens if somebody is only halfway through a building permit application or construction when that ends?
As use of rural property is blocked, Whatcom County Assessor Keith Willnauer expects many properties here to be devalued, which makes sense if they can’t be used or sold because suddenly there’s no water supply. Those properties’ previous taxes will be reassigned to the rest of us, including people in the cities, according to Willnauer. Landowners and renters (whose rates go up when housing costs rise) will pay for this. It will hit your pocketbook. And our already “crisis”-level housing costs will go up even higher.
What to do? If the Legislature can agree on a Hirst fix, the Governor has said he will call a brief special session, likely in September, to approve the Hirst fix and the capital budget.
If this concerns you, please call and e-mail your state legislators now – particularly in the 40th District – asking them to push for a House vote in September on SB 5239, to return the power to approve wells in closed basins to Ecology – the agency this state has charged with handling water matters.
Linda Twitchell is the government affairs director of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County.