What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

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Well moratorium summary continued

For starters, here are some relevant facts compiled from my research. This information almost becomes common sense once one absorbs it all:
  1. There are three legal entities that oversee water use: the state Department of Ecology (DOE), the county in which the water is used, and Superior Court, which hears lawsuits.
  2. All surface water in our county already belongs to water rights holders -- there is no more surface water available. This situation extends, as far as I know, all the way down the Yakima River to the Columbia, maybe even all the way to the Pacific.
  3. Existing surface water rights can be bought, sold, or traded, and this is commonly done.
  4. Most ground water is connected to surface water, both for recharge of ground water and to drain ground water from aquifers. The connections move water over short time scales, like hours, or over longer time scales, like years, depending on the geology of the location.
  5. Withdrawals from groundwater via wells mean that less groundwater is available to become surface water.
  6. Most water withdrawn from wells for use in homes with septic systems returns to the ground, while water used for watering lawns or gardens does not return to the ground -- it evaporates.
  7. Since groundwater and surface water are connected, withdrawals from wells in some locations do affect things like the amount of water in the Yakima River.
  8. In low water years, junior water right-holders are subject to having their water cut off, but well users are not.
  9. Speaking of "water rights," land ownership does not mean there is a right to water, either legally or practically (everyone has heard of deep, expensive -- but dry -- wells).
  10. State law allows "exempt wells" for water use of 5000 gallons per day, more than 10 times the amount of water needed to run a household. The exemption in "exempt wells" is from the permitting process required for agricultural or industrial wells, a process that can take years.
In short, if too many wells are drilled and used in the Yakima River drainage, it could damage the availability of water to, for example, Kittitas County farmers with water rights a hundred years old. Water users downstream of Kittitas County are concerned, too.

In my reading and talks with people I have come across lots of irrelevant facts, and lots of things that may or not be facts, but we'll try to stick to the relevant facts, virtually all of which were known or knowable in 2007 when a group called Aqua Permanente brought their concerns to the attention of the DOE. (It is not relevant that Aqua Permanente is a small group, and that their action affected many people. This kind of talk is blaming the messenger, and it is not a sign of good leadership.)

What matters is that DOE agreed that there was a reasonable concern that groundwater withdrawals could affect the water rights of existing surface water users, and asked the county to limit the amount of water well owners could take to less than 5000 gallons per day. As usual with regulators, at first they spoke softly and carried a big stick. The big stick was DOE's ability to impose a well moratorium, something they did a year ago this week, after about a year and a half of waiting for the county to act. During this time, of course, wells were being drilled as quickly as possible. Once the moratorium was imposed, well drilling, property sales, and construction ground to a halt. A slowdown had already been underway due to the credit crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, but the well moratorium added an unnecessary burden on the hundreds of workers in the construction industry who had been enjoying some well-earned good times.

It's not hard to imagine what happened at the public meetings called to discuss DOE's request. In 2007 the county's unemployment rate was the lowest it had ever been, land values were rising, and banks were loaning money freely (this led to the credit crisis of 2008). Probably no one wanted to accept any intrusion into the excitement of 2007, and I'm sure the BoCC got an earful at the meetings. One thing they apparently heard was the argument that limiting wells to less than 5000 gallons per day was illegal, and this is still a common statement. The county's (and the development industry's) refusal to accept the limitation is why the DOE ended up pulling the trigger on the moratorium.

It could have been avoided.

You may be thinking, if you've read this far, "But limiting the wells would be illegal! Illegal!" Imagine a thought experiment: Olympia calls to say that they have Kittitas County's Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, and they will chop her head off if someone doesn't get there quickly to stop them. Would it be OK to drive 80 miles an hour to get there in time? Now, suppose Olympia also provided a State Patrol escort -- that's similar to what DOE offered.

Accepting reduced withdrawals would have eased Kittitas County's entry into the nation-wide recession. In their defense, the BoCC might say that the overwhelming message from the public at the public meetings was that the county should tell the DOE to go to hell. But we have a republican form of government for precisely the reason that citizens can get worked up about issues, and elected officials are needed to exercise cooler judgment. It's not easy, but that's what leadership looks like. Leaders should drink upstream from the herd.

Allowing the moratorium to be imposed was bad enough, but then the BoCC blamed DOE for doing what DOE had said they would do and had the authority to do. At the most recent public meeting, the BoCC acknowledged DOE's authority, but at the time of the moratorium the Board accused DOE of meddling in the county's affairs and tried to whip up public outrage. Ironically, this tactic is called "poisoning the well," and it's not what leaders do, either.

Meanwhile, and at least for now, all this has damaged the county's brand. The County Commissioners exercised poor judgment, caused economic hardship, frustrated the DOE, annoyed the governor, and blamed it all on politics.