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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hundreds rushed to get building permits in Spokane County before court ruling on water rights took effect

Several water towers pull water from the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer west  of the Idaho border in Otis Orchards. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

Hundreds of people rushed to obtain Spokane County building permit applications this week as new, more restrictive rules governing water rights took hold.

The Washington Supreme Court earlier this month said new water users cannot diminish supplies to senior water right holders or to stream-flow targets set by the state.

The court decision limits the ability of property owners to rely on well water to build new homes in areas not served by water systems.

Critics decried the decision as a building moratorium, prompting the rush on applications.

From Oct. 20 through 26, the county’s building department received 453 building permit applications.

That represented a ninefold increase over normal building permit activity, county officials said.

The court decision was set to take effect Thursday, giving property owners a short window of time to apply for building permits under previous water-rights rules.

The Little Spokane River, which has had stream-flow targets for years, is one location where the court decision will affect new building activity.

The Little Spokane basin has been closed to new water rights since 1976 because of low summer flows in the river.

The vast area lying upstream from the river is also going to be affected.

County officials said five other watersheds in the county will be affected by the ruling.

An analysis of the building applications showed that the largest number came from the areas of Deer Park, Chattaroy, Elk, Colbert and Mead.

But a significant number also came from the south and southwest parts of the county, including the Cheney area, where water availability is a long-standing issue.

The areas affected are outside of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which has a large supply of groundwater, although environmentalists argue that the aquifer is potentially exhaustible.

Across the state, the problem of insufficient water has led to battles in Kittitas County and locations west of the Cascades.

For years, the Whitworth Water District has supplied a water tank for rural residents who regularly fill containers and haul them home for domestic use.

The government’s response to water shortages in rural areas of Spokane County has often been to extend public water supplies.

Several years ago, the Whitworth Water District laid an 8.5-mile extension of water lines at a cost $3.5 million. Another 9-mile extension in the vicinity of Perry and Wild Rose roads required a 2-million-gallon reservoir at a cost of $5.1 million.

The problem is one of geology – more specifically, hydrogeology.

Much of the Little Spokane River drainage has little soil and few pockets of water-bearing gravel among layers of granite.

The basalt rock found to the south and southwest poses an equally difficult challenge.

According to public records, one resident sank a 650-foot well and came up with a flow of 3 gallons a minute. But the water was dirty.

One resident drilled 850 feet and came up dry.

Before a building permit was issued under the old rules, the county merely required that a well produce at least 1 gallon a minute over a four-hour period. Critics say that wasn’t sufficient to prove the well could maintain that production.

In addition, the amount of water being produced from a well can become an issue when it comes time to buy or sell.

An investigation by The Spokesman-Review in 2013 found that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in rural Spokane County live without enough water even for basic needs, much less the luxury of a green lawn.

Among the problems found in the investigation, a well in the 10200 block of North Fairview Road was pumping so much sand that the homeowner had to clean filters several times a day. The house was later connected to public water at a cost of $15,000.

A home in the 10800 block of North Florida Lane was not getting enough water from its well to supply household needs. The water district had recently installed a main, so the homeowner spent $16,000 to connect to the main and run a line to the house.

Another home in the 3700 block of East Center Road was also starved for sufficient well water. The homeowner got a waiver for part of the cost of hooking up to an adjacent water main. The cost of getting public water was $3,500.