She hopes to provide “a modicum of water for rural landowners.” Not adequate water, a modicum. A smidgen. A pittance. A drop in the bucket.
So said Maia Bellon, director of the Department of Ecology, testifying this week before the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee on proposed legislation from the House Democratic Caucus and the Governor’s Office.
Her deliberate choice of words won’t help build bipartisan confidence in this solution to resolve the Hirst water fight. The standoff developed earlier this year, and for the first time, the Legislature failed to pass a capital budget. And not for the first time, DOE is seeking to expand its control.
When the Washington Supreme Court decided the Hirst case in 2016, it effectively eliminated the category of permit-exempt wells by reinterpreting the relationship between the Growth Management Act and water law. Counties found themselves responsible for determining if water was available for individual domestic wells before granting building permits.
The impact was felt statewide as banks declined to lend on land without assurance of access to water. David Danton, CEO of Lexar Homes, said 90 percent of his customers across Washington seek to build on land relying on permit-exempt wells. “Spokane and Spokane Valley is an area we took a huge loss on this year,” he said. Last year at this time, Lexar had built 46 homes in Spokane County. This year the number is 22.
Under the proposed legislation, permit-exempt wells tapping groundwater in watersheds with an established instream flow rule would require a $1,500 permit from DOE, and must be metered. Another number kept coming up over and over, a limit of 350 gallons per day for indoor use only. No garden. No “Firewise” green space around the house. No outdoor faucets to fill a dog’s water dish or a horse trough. Watering livestock would require drilling a second well.
For comparison, estimates of average daily domestic usage from the four largest water purveyors in Spokane – the city of Spokane, Whitworth Water District No. 2, Vera Water & Power and Modern Electric & Power – range from 550 gallons per day to 1,250 gallons per day. Those numbers include indoor and outdoor use, and are year-round averages. Usage logically peaks in summer.
Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, asked Bellon if the same limit would be imposed on municipal water users. The answer was no, but as several of those testifying pointed out, public water systems draw groundwater from the same watersheds as domestic wells. The limits also would not apply to existing permit-exempt wells.
The Department of Ecology’s February 2015 permit-exempt well study estimates that “statewide, during the irrigation season, self-supplied wells account for 0.9 percent of the overall consumptive use,” of which all but about 10 percent is recycled back into the same groundwater basin through on-site septic systems. Public water supply systems account for 4.6 percent, but with wastewater often treated and discharged into waterways rather than returned to its original location.
Ecology’s report concludes “the greatest return, from a water management perspective, would be gained by focusing on those areas where the impact would be greatest.” Focusing on 10 percent of 0.9 percent doesn’t meet the greatest return test.
The percentage of water use attributable to permit-exempt wells varies in the Inland Northwest from lows of 0.8 percent in Lincoln County and 1.1 percent in Whitman County, to a high of 20.7 percent in Pend Oreille County. Spokane and Stevens County fall in the middle at 11.4 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Within each county are limited problem areas where multiple domestic wells in a sub-basin do create negative impacts between neighbors. Metering might be a useful tool in specific settings.
But this legislation isn’t about mediating between neighbors. It’s about putting fish first. Or as one legislator put it, fish are protected but people living in rural Washington are not.
The proposal also requests $200 million in new bonded indebtedness for DOE-led planning focused on instream flows of water for fish, replacing holistic grass-roots planning completed in each watershed from 1998 to 2012. Unsurprisingly, Bellon didn’t think $200 million would be enough and said she’d probably “be back for a bump.”
Perhaps she could make do with a modicum of a budget.
Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at