EVERETT — After state lawmakers earlier this year clarified well-drilling rules for rural development, Snohomish County tried to adapt quickly.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed a fix to the Hirst case Jan. 19. County employees were soon ready to process building permits under the state’s new rules for exempt wells.
“Within a week we had rolled it out,” deputy county planning director Mike McCrary said.
The Hirst decision upended building rules on rural properties throughout the state. The 2016 Supreme Court ruling in a Whatcom County case meant that counties could no longer rely on the state Department of Ecology to determine whether a property had access to enough water — legally and physically — for a new well.
It applied to domestic wells, which are allowed to use a certain amount of water per day without first obtaining a water availability certificate. The rules are intended to protect other well users and salmon habitat.
Until the state resolved the Hirst impasse, each county had to come up with its own system for predicting impacts on nearby streams and existing wells. They took different approaches.
Whatcom imposed moratoriums on new rural developments that relied on domestic wells.
Snohomish County, in contrast, continued to process building permits on those properties. Applicants, however, had to sign a form acknowledging that water access was not guaranteed, even if a building permit was issued.
Whatever action county government took, property owners still may not have been able to drill a well on their property. And without water, many never could have secured a certificate of occupancy for new buildings.
“It had the same effect as a moratorium,” said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
Snohomish County processed an estimated 300 permits that would have required an acknowledgement.
“We weren’t holding up the building permits, but we were telling customers, ‘This is something you need to know,’” McCrary said. “We had a lot of customers out there who were depending on exempt wells for their water availability.”
Under the new system, Snohomish County will no longer make people sign an acknowledgement form.
People applying for building permits on exempt-well properties must demonstrate that they have an adequate supply of potable water. Typically, that would mean documentation from an approved water purveyor, the Department of Ecology or the Snohomish Health District.
The new rules for exempt wells vary according to the Water Resource Inventory Area, or WRIA, where they are located. Those areas generally correspond to river basins.
The new state rules impose stricter water use limits and higher fees in some areas. Existing exempt wells are not impacted.
Environmentalists and tribal governments have criticized the state’s Hirst resolution. They say it fails to adequately protect other water users or salmon, especially in basins where water levels are already declining.
The building community, which lobbied for the state to resolve the impasse, was grateful for Snohomish County’s swift reaction.
“A lot of our members are very relieved at the Hirst decision. There were a lot of projects pending and those were at risk of dying if you wait too long,” said the Master Builders’ Pattison. “The county’s quick turnaround on assisting customers impacted by the water-well issue is extremely impressive.”
Thousands of building lots in Snohomish and Skagit counties were left in limbo prior to last month’s resolution, Pattison said. An exact number is impossible to calculate as each parcel must be reviewed individually.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald net.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
For more information on Snohomish County’s process relating to well water and building permits, see: www.snohomishcountywa.gov/3804/Water—-Exempt-Well-Information.