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Our Water, Our World: Developers and the Water Hunt

By Paul Pickett

More wells are drilled in Thurston County than in any other western Washington county, averaging 458 a year from 2000-07, with 3,663 over the eight-year period. Only Spokane County drills more wells.

Each year the County issues about a thousand building permits for homes. Thus, about half of all the new homes in this county are served by a new well, while almost all of these wells have no water right. They are "exempt" wells, where public water is given away for free, without being measured, and without any analysis of the impact of that well on other wells or on the natural flow of streams.

Under state law, a well that uses less than 5000 gallons per day for domestic use is exempt from the need for a water right. The Department of Health has determined that a typical house uses 800 gallons per day, which has resulted in the proverbial "six-pack", where a developer builds six houses on a well without a water right.

Historically, developers could "bundle" six-packs, so a development might have three or four wells, each serving six houses. However, recent court rulings limited that practice. But some developers still find loopholes. In other counties developers create a Limited Liability Corporation for each set of six houses. Or they may assert their houses will use less water: "14-packs" and even "28-packs" have been proposed.

Some argue that an exempt well is not a problem because the water returns to its source through a septic drainfield. But this ignores a number of issues. More water is used for irrigation than in the house, and mostly in summer, so that water evaporates instead of returning to the aquifer. Drainfields may return water to a different soil layer than the aquifer used by the well. Water may move slowly through the ground, so water returning used in summer may not reach the aquifer until fall or winter. No one really knows how these exempt wells impact a nearby well or stream, or what the effect of thousands of exempt wells might be.

How does Thurston County determine water availability? Developers who are proposing more than six houses have two choices: they can hook up to an existing system, or get a water right from the Department of Ecology. However, hundreds of developments each year with six or fewer houses get a free pass.

These smaller developments still have hoops to jump through. For developments with greater than four houses, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requires an environmental checklist and determination with the initial application. The SEPA process is meant to identify and mitigate environmental problems before a project is developed, but sometimes it fails. Issues can fall through the cracks at each step in the process, so SEPA's usefulness is limited in terms of water supply.

When a developer initially applies, they must show the proposed location for a well on their plans. For a system with more than one house, the county provides preliminary approval with conditions that include the drilling/testing of a well. Single-family wells need no further approval except for final documentation when building is complete. After a well is drilled, the production and quality of the well is measured. The developer must determine the pumping and treatment requirements of the well, and submit that with their final application.

A development's water supply must be approved by either the County (14 or fewer homes), or State (15 or more homes) Health Departments. Their primary concern is the quality of the water. GIS maps help identify areas of known contamination, like high chloride or nitrate levels in ground water. A hydrogeologist may review the well and septic plans, and may require a detailed hydrogeologic study. Typically this is done for potential contamination problems, but not usually for concerns with neighboring wells and streams.

Ironically, it's possible that the County might choose to overlook the possible impact of a well on a neighbor's well. But if later that impact results in low pressure in the neighbor's well, it could result in a contamination problem. That would throw the issue back into the lap of the Health Department.

Impacts of exempt wells on other wells and surface water are rarely if ever examined. Ecology says they have no authority and Thurston County defers to Ecology. State rules do not limit exempt wells in Thurston County even if a basin is closed to water use due to low instream flows (see the June 2006 Green Pages). Critical areas ordinances create wetland and streamside buffers, but wells can still be constructed in these buffers. Some watershed planning groups have looked at limiting exempt wells, but not the groups that cover Thurston County. Ecology can evaluate the effect of exempt wells in a formal adjudication, but this isn't happening in Thurston County.

What are the possible solutions to this problem? The County could modify water availability ordinances to include stricter requirements on wellhead buffers from neighboring wells and streams. Ecology could rewrite their rules to include exempt wells in minimum instream flow requirements. Watershed planning groups could propose such revisions. Most of all, citizens could demand action from these groups and from their County and State governments.

Paul Pickett is an environmental engineer, Public Utility District Commissioner, and occasional columnist for Green Pages.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22