by Eric Hirst
Dear Whatcom County Council Members,
Last week’s council meeting included several rural residents, builders, and realtors opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision on the future of rural permit-exempt wells. I hope attendance at next week’s hearing will be more balanced. Here are several reasons why council should extend the temporary moratorium, primarily to allow county staff time to develop viable solutions.
- The WA Supreme Court ordered Whatcom County to comply with state law, the Growth Management Act (GMA), which requires counties to coordinate land-use planning with water-resource planning. Specifically, the court and GMA require counties to ensure that water is both legally and physically available before allowing people to build homes that would use water from permit-exempt wells. These requirements are sensible, indeed obvious.
- Were the county to ignore resource constraints, it would be giving away resources that are simply not available. This water would come from holders of senior water rights, including instream flows protected under Ecology’s 1985 Instream Flow Rule.
- Granting building permits without ensuring the availability of sufficient water would worsen conditions for salmon and other wildlife, as well as scenic and recreational resources in the Nooksack River and its tributaries. Why should prospective rural homeowners jump to the head of the line, ahead of other human rights to water and ahead of environmental rights and needs for water?
- The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe have treaty rights from 1855 that assure them sufficient water to maintain healthy stocks of salmon and other fish. Sadly, salmon runs are a tiny fraction of what they were decades ago. Granting permits where water is not available would undercut treaty rights and worsen conditions for salmon.
- If the county fails to take seriously the 2013 order from the Growth Management Hearings Board and the October 2016 Supreme Court decision, it might find its comprehensive plan subject to invalidity, in which case most (or all) rural development will be stopped until the county comes into compliance with the GMA.
- The county does not face a binary choice: either allow development as before, or stop all rural development. The county has many intermediate choices, depending on where in the Nooksack watershed the proposed development is. The county staff needs a few months to identify and explore these options, discuss them with the public, and then present them to the county council for approval. Here are a few simple options that come to mind: identify where each parcel is relative to Ecology’s 1985 rule and its seasonal and year-round closures to identify where and how extensive the problems are, permit development but prohibit outdoor water use during the summer months, limit indoor water use (e.g., to 350 gallons/day), limit the amount of impervious surface to increase infiltration of rainwater into the ground, require installation of high efficiency water-use fixtures and equipment, require that each well be metered with the output electronically sent to the county, and allow the use of seasonal storage devices that would be filled in the winter and used during the summer.
- Each permit-exempt well uses only a small amount of water. But the cumulative effect of thousands of wells makes existing water problems ever more serious.
- Most indoor water use is returned to the hydrological system (although later in time, downstream of its withdrawal, and likely with lower quality). But most outdoor water use is lost to evaporation and transpiration. And this outdoor use, occurring primarily during the critical summer months, is what further diminishes instream flows and salmon habitat.
Thank you for considering my views. Again, I hope you will vote to extend the temporary moratorium.