As ripples continue to circle outward from the Hirst decision, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners has begun the process of determining how the Washington state Supreme Court ruling will affect residents and development based on water usage and availability.
Shortly after the Hirst decision was handed down in October 2016, the Board of Commissioners directed the county’s hydrologist to begin gathering information on water supplies across the county.
“We are asking our hydrogeologist to look at all water availability in the county, not focusing on any particular area. This is a county-wide issue and all areas are of the same importance in this process,” said commission Vice Chairman John Hutchings in a press release.
The Hirst decision, which related to rural wells in Whatcom County, sets precedent that is expected to hamper development in rural counties by limiting the number of new freshwater water wells that will be allowed. While property owners could previously use Department of Ecology data to determine the availability of water, the ruling essentially requires local governments and property owners to conduct their own surveys at a cost that can range between $2,000 and $10,000.
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The Legislature failed to pass legislation on the matter during a series of special sessions in which Republicans in the Senate insisted on a fix.
It was a disagreement that ultimately led to no capital budget being passed.
“Gathering this data will help in the decision making process so we, as a board, are making a sound decision based on scientific information,” said commission Chairman Bud Blake in the press release. “We are asking for regular updates from our hydrogeologist so we can thoroughly understand what our county resources are before we make any policy decisions about those resources.”
Thurston County is currently issuing certificates of water availability for single family exempt wells while it continues to delve into the ramifications of the Hirst decision. Without specific data, the commissioners decided it would be too early to deny permits.
“We want to make sure any decision made is in the best interest of both the environment and our residents,” said Commissioner Gary Edwards. “Taking some time to really understand what we are working with will help in that process.”
Landowners with concerns about water rights and availability should contact an attorney. County staff are legally prohibited from providing advice to certificates of water availability applicants or other members of the public.