News

Putting the squeeze on new water rights

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the soon-to-be-proposed water management rule for the Dungeness Valley. This week’s section looks at the rule’s impact on local homeowners, farmers, developers and the City of Sequim.)

Because the Washington Department of Ecology believes that pumping groundwater from area aquifers will reduce the flow in the Dungeness and the various additional streams within the valley, the department is including in the proposed regulations new rules regarding privately owned and public wells.

 

The draft rules have raised the ire of some area real estate professionals, who say they will create too much uncertainty regarding the availability of water for farming and development.

 

Ecology maintains that the new rules won’t preclude development, pointing out that those who build within an existing water system won’t be directly affected.

 

However, they add, new homes and businesses will be required to hook up to existing water systems if that option is available.

 

The new rule also will enable Ecology to make decisions on new water rights for water supply systems.

An article in the November edition of “Dungeness Water Watch,” the newsletter of the Local Leaders Water Management Group (LLWG), points out that landowners and utilities seeking new water rights for the development of community water systems now “are in a long line of water right applicants — a line that isn’t moving because the region is already allocated. Therefore, community systems can’t get new water, even if they are designed and managed to maximize efficiency and public health.”

 

Ann Soule, a hydrogeologist with Clallam County Environmental Health Services, said as matters now stand, community water system developers can’t get any water. “One of the drivers for this rule is to get that line moving again,” she added.

New rules for well owners

Well owners in the area now can draw out 5,000 gallons a day and water up to half an acre. They can use an unlimited amount of water for stock watering.

 

Under the new rule, current well owners would retain those rights — if they have been using them.

If they haven’t been using those rights, they may be subject to the same rules that will apply to a new land owner or a land owner who wants to drill a new well.

 

LLWG says the rule is “likely to affect you directly if you wish to build on or sell developable land in eastern Clallam County, outside of areas already served by some community water systems.”

 

To which Heidi Hansen, executive director of the Sequim Association of Realtors, responded with a hearty “Amen.”

 

She explained that anyone hoping to drill a new well will first pay a one-time mitigation fee. The mitigation fee won’t be set in the rule, but planners hope it will be established in a Memorandum of Agreement by the time the rule is promulgated.

 

The new water user then will be required to put a wireless meter on the well.

 

“You’ll think you’re good to go, but that’s only for water in the house,” Hansen said.

 

“I’m concerned for our clients and property owners,” she said. She described one client who would like to purchase property now for a heritage seed business he will open when he retires. “I can’t sell Sequim property with the expectation that in 10 years they’ll be able to do the business.

 

“Just because it has a well doesn’t mean they will have the needed water. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

Hansen provided another for-instance, saying “Farmer John has 50 acres he wants to become a subdivision. But if he can’t drill a well, he may not be able to do it when the time comes.”

 

Soule said this would be the case if the water bank runs out of mitigation credits. “This is a potential the state, and LLWG, should come up with contingency for,” she said. “At this point everyone assumes that someone somewhere will sell their rights and restock the bank ….”

 

Soule said if the value of the water climbs, the possibility of a sale becomes more likely.

Ensuring there’s water

Ecology says the new rule will ensure water will remain available to owners of new homes and businesses who can’t hook up to an existing supply and for those land and home owners who need the water.

 

These opportunities include accessing groundwater by buying into a water exchange now being developed by Clallam County, Ecology and the Washington Water Trust. The exchange will obtain water for mitigation and sell “credits” for it.

 

Hansen said, “If there’s water in the water exchange, you can buy it — a little. Maybe enough to water up to a quarter-acre.”

 

Soule said the amount hasn’t yet been determined.

 

Owners also can submit their own mitigation plan to Ecology for approval before seeking subdivision approval or a building permit. These plans will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

 

The rule also creates the small reserves of water that will ensure the availability of indoor water. Reserve water will be accessed through the exchange when there isn’t enough mitigation water.

 

Ann Wessell, Instream Flow Rule Lead with the Department of Ecology, said “mitigation and the availability of water from reserves means that domestic water use for new homes will not be interrupted when the regulatory instream flow levels are not met in the river.”

 

Marguerite Glover, a realtor with Peter Black Real Estate, said she is most concerned “that too many people who already have unused wells, or are on small systems, don’t realize they will come under the new rule and are going to be caught completely unaware.”

 

She encourages everyone to read the new rule, but provides a warning: “We have well-educated people who don’t understand the preliminary draft rule.”

 

She added, “I’m sure that many at the County are unclear exactly how it should work, and what their role will be, when the citizen comes up to the counter for a building permit.”

 

She complimented Ecology for planning public meetings to discuss the rule further. The dates and times of the meetings haven’t yet been established.

 

The rule is expected to be proposed in February 2012 and adopted by August. To learn more about the rule, see www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/instream-flows/dungeness.html.

 


Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

 

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