The well water dilemma and the new Thurston County Commissioners

The new Thurston County Commissioners (they call themselves “independents or Tea Party”) have joined other counties across the state in trying to figure out how to monitor their groundwater and issue building permits (with water wells) in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court ruling on Whatcom County water rights.

In the Whatcom County v. Hirst ruling, the Washington State Supreme court ruled that counties are responsible for protecting water resources under the Growth Management Act (GMA). Because of this, counties are required to conduct independent water studies to determine if water is available without affecting minimum in-stream flows and senior water rights holders.

At the recent “Thurston County Study Session” the week of February 20-23, this was discussed. Thurston County staff, at this meeting, admitted that they do not have enough water bank data on this issue, and that this task may take years to accomplish.

This leaves Thurston County in a state of limbo, Commissioner Bud Blake said at the study, or work, session (attended mostly by the Master Builders Association). Before the county takes action to set up procedures to monitor the groundwater to issue building permits that meet the court’s standards, Blake wants to see what happens in the Legislature and in the courts. For now, “Thurston County will continue to issue water well permits (exempt permits), assuming water is available”, says County Commissioner Bud Blake.

This issue was highly debated at the “study session”. The Thurston County staff lawyers kept saying; “Thurston County is risking legal exposure”, they said. By issuing water well permits, without adequate data on our county water bank, the County may permit “over-pumping” of the water here. Thurston County can be sued. The County Commissioners do not seem to care.

The County Commissioners pushed to have “business as usual”, meaning, to issue water well (exempt) permits. The Thurston County hydrologist Kevin Hughes, kept saying, “Thurston needs more water data, and this effort will take years to gather this data.” The County Commissioners did not seem to care that Thurston County may “over pump” or deplete the Thurston County water bank (or water table) , and leave current home owners, who have water wells, without water.

One such home owner who asked not to be named told about how she and her parents have lived on Lilly Road in Olympia, Washington, for 25 years. They have a water well that was dug 25 years ago. They have less and less well water for their home, she said. Surrounding new homes are being built and they are all on water wells. She can only “turn on the water faucet” for short periods of time currently. She is concerned that she will not have water for her home in the near future. What will she do? She cannot move, she has no money to move, she is retired. She cannot sell her home; no one will buy it without water. (County water users do not have access to City water. If your well runs dry, that is your problem. No one will help you).

But Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards believes the Washington Supreme court’s Hirst ruling is an “overreach of government”.

“This is class warfare”, says Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards, “I’m here to stick up for the citizens.”

But which citizens is he talking about? The rich ones who are constructing new $400,000 homes with “exempt” water well permits? Or the home owners in Thurston County who have lived here and whose water wells are going dry?

Across the state, counties have adopted different methods of addressing the ruling, county hydrogeologist Kevin Hughes said.

In the wake of the Washington state Supreme Court’s ruling in Whatcom County v. Hirst, counties across the state are struggling with how to monitor their groundwater and issue building permits (with water well permits).

Thurston County is stuck in a state of limbo, Commissioner Bud Blake said at a Tuesday work session. Before the county takes any action to set up procedures to monitor the groundwater to issue building permits that hold up to the court’s standards, Blake wants to see what happens in the Legislature and in the courts. He and the other commissioners seem to want the GOP Legislature to allow the county to just issue the water well (exempt) permits.

In Hirst, the court ruled counties are responsible for protecting water resources under the Growth Management Act. Because of this, counties are required under the decision to conduct independent water studies to determine if water is available without impacting minimum in-stream flows and senior water rights holders.

Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards believes the regulations imposed by the court are an overreach of government.

“Only the rich will be able to live on their estates and everyone else will have to live in the “ghettos,” Edwards said, it is “the government waging the class warfare”.

The county hydrogeologist, Kevin Hansen said, “In Pierce County development has been shut down completely; Jefferson County requires meters on all wells and water banks have been set up in Kittitas and Walla Walla counties”.

The main source of concern in Thurston County is with permitted “ exempt wells” that serve a single family home, where the county has about 34,000 exempt well permits; each have the capacity to pump 280 gallons a day.

Numerous bills have been introduced in the Washington State Legislature to address the issues surrounding the Hirst decision. The Thurston County Commissioners, at this study session, seem to say that they want the GOP bills to overturn any ruling that keeps them from issuing these “exempt” water well permits for new development in Thurston County.

Glen Morgan of the Tea Party and Freedom Foundation wants Thurston County to issue water well permits to all new development, and the County Commissioners agree with him.

They dislike Jean Melious, a law school professor at Huxley Environmental College and former head of the Whatcom County Planning Commission, who was involved with the Washington State Supreme court ruling recently. They also dislike David Stalheim from Wanatchee County, and Eric Hirst. Eric Hirst was a Futurewise board member, who thinks that we should not over pump the water in our State.

Spokane County and other Washington State Counties have put a building moratorium on new water well permits until they receive more information of how to comply with these water well rules. But not Thurston County. The Thurston County Commissioners kept saying, “We want “business as usual”, keep issuing exempt water well permits here.

This will bring our county to its knees.

The Hirst decision is part of the Growth Management Act (GMA). It means that you, as an individual, are no longer entitled to a water well unless you meet certain conditions (such as proving that there is enough water for all of the neighbors, all of the current water users). The Hirst Ruling affects all new wells and related development, and it may also affect existing wells and water users, who may over-pump. The people who “over-pump” their well water, are called “bad apples”. Because there is currently no monitoring of the water wells to see how much each well is pumping, the “bad apples” can over pump their well water.

Governor Booth Gardner signed the Growth Management Act in 1990. Washington State patterned the GMA after Florida, that introduced their Smart Growth Act in 1969 to prevent sprawl and congestion. Many land developers in Thurston County want sprawl and congestion. Many in Thurston County want to ignore the plight of current home owners whose wells are going dry because of the new “exempt” water well permits issued by Thurston County.

Now is the time for our elected servants to start earning their paycheck. Please join me in contacting our representatives (leg.wa.gov). and the Thurston County Commissioners. Ask them to support current homes with water wells in Thurston County, that are going dry. Ask them to stop issuing “exempt” water well permits.

The author is a long-time Olympia resident, and loves WIP!

 

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