Thurston County is looking to next year as it plans how to best address water availability issues.
On Thursday, county staff asked the Board of County Commissioners to authorize $600,000 in 2018 to be used to conduct a complete water availability study to comply with the Hirst decision.
In the Hirst decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that counties are responsible for determining water availability when issuing building permits with permit exempt wells. Counties across the state have been scrambling to determine what effects it will have on rural building.
Previously, counties relied on information from the state Department of Ecology because they lacked the resources to conduct their own water surveys. However, the court ruled they can no longer rely on that information.
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In Thurston County there are 34,000 permit exempt wells that can draw up to 280 gallons of water a day. The average household water use is about 86 gallons a day.
The Legislature was unable to agree on how to address the ruling, and the political stalemate also kept it from passing a capital budget.
When the ruling was handed down in October 2016, the then-County Commissioners directed the county’s hydrologists to conduct a water availability study, according to a county press release.
“We are trying to make a good faith effort to look into the requirements of Hirst,” Commissioner Gary Edwards said. “We look at this as an unfunded mandate the state dropped on us.”
Some of the requested funds — $336,125 — will come from the Stormwater Utility budget, according to the staff report. The remainder will need to come from another part from the county budget.
According to the report, it is appropriate to use funds from the stormwater budget for some of the study because they will be used to expand the monitoring network that provides data for managing stream flows, precipitation and groundwater elevations because those functions directly relate to stormwater. However, other aspects, such as determining the withdrawal rates, would not be an appropriate use of the funds.
The study will include in-depth analysis of very large data sets for water availability, installation of new monitoring stations and equipment in areas where information is limited or out of date, the development and implementation of interagency contracts with the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Survey, and the development of policy questions and options for the commissioners to consider.
The commissioners could decide to keep funding at $27,500, for work done only by a hydrologist, to give the Legislature time to clarify the situation for local governments, the report said. However, it will not meet the intent of the court’s ruling.
If the county continues to use its pre-Hirst process for issuing building permits with certificates of water availability, it is probable the county could overallocate new development water consumption within certain basins, according to the staff report.
The $600,000 plan would allow the county to develop policy questions without waiting for a legislative fix, and would provide third-party reviewed data about water availability in the county as well as fill in gaps in data the county currently has.
However, it has significant annual costs through 2021 and proposes the hiring of additional staff, according to the report.
Edwards said the county is looking for additional resources to conduct the study.
“We are trying to get as much information as possible before we put policy in place,” he said.
Edwards said staff has told him there are no existing examples of shortages of water.
He said he has heard concerns from residents about what the decision means for them, their property, and its value. This could further affect some residents who are already dealing with the endangered Mazama pocket gopher, he said.
Edwards said he expects the commissioners to make a decision about this early next year.