Thurston County has joined other counties across the state in trying to figure out how to monitor their groundwater and issue building permits in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court ruling on Whatcom County water rights.
In the Whatcom County v. Hirst ruling, the court ruled counties are responsible for protecting water resources under the Growth Management Act. 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.
That leaves Thurston County in a state of limbo, Commissioner Bud Blake said at a work session last week. 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 permits assuming water is available unless data specifically states it isn’t, Blake said.
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Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards said he believes the court’s ruling is 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. “This is class warfare, this is how I see it.
“Money can take care of all these regulations,” he said. “I’m here to stick up for the citizens.”
Across the state, counties have adopted different methods of addressing the ruling, county hydrogeologist Kevin Hughes 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 permit-exempt wells that serve a single-family home. The county has about 34,000 permit-exempt wells, each with the capacity to pump 280 gallons a day. However, the average daily water consumption rate is about 86 gallons a day.
On the other side of the equation, the largest consumer of water in the last 100 years has been irrigation, Hughes said. But in the past 40 years or so, irrigation has declined, so a lot of water rights holders are not using their water. Hughes said he is unsure if the water no longer being used for irrigation can be used for another purpose, or if it is being used by exempt wells.
Thurston County could set up a water bank to mitigate the affects on in-stream flows during the summer months, Hughes said. However, the Supreme Court is hearing a case to determine if water banks fit the requirements to protect the water.
Blake said shutting down all development, as Pierce County is doing, is too drastic. Commissioners John Hutchings and Edwards agreed.