The state Department of Ecology has relaxed a controversial rule, making wells a legal water supply for properties in a section of west Skagit County.
The 2001 instream flow rule essentially has restricted residents in the Skagit River basin from putting in wells for residential use in order to preserve water levels for fish populations.
But Ecology identified a 56-square-mile area of Skagit County from Bayview south to La Conner and as far east as Sedro-Woolley where the department believes drawing water from wells does not have an impact on the river’s flow.
This means the county now has the authority to allow wells as legal sources of water for the purposes of issuing building permits, according to Ecology spokeswoman Kristin Johnson-Waggoner.
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Skagit County Planning Director Dale Pernula welcomed the new water availability area, but said much of the area is served by the Skagit Public Utility District, making piped water already available.
“It’s definitely an incremental improvement,” he said.
Ryan Walters, assistant planning director, said Ecology identified about 20 homes in the area that will now have a legal water supply.
He said there are likely several more property owners in the area who have been unable to build because of the instream flow rule.
“It’s not hundreds of people,” he said. “It’s more like tens.”
Pernula said some of the area is protected agricultural land that already is closed to development.
Johnson-Waggoner said the relaxation of the rule was the result of work by Ecology and the U.S. Geological Survey, and is based on groundwater models that indicate levels of the Skagit River had little in common with well levels in the area.
That research showed groundwater in the area flows out to saltwater.
The report relied on information from a 2003 report that was compiled for the Skagit Watershed Plan, according to an email from Johnson-Waggoner.
She said the department is investigating other regions of the county that it may add as water availability areas.
The exemption for the 56-square-mile area is only for small domestic wells. Ecology has not determined whether it will allow larger water uses.