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Exempt Wells: Time to End the Death of a Thousand Punctures?

By Paul Pickett

One of the oddities of Washington water law provides exemptions that allow landowners to drill wells and take water without obtaining a permit. Taken together, these "exempt" wells, as I've written in this column in the past, are gaping holes in rational water planning and management.

Thurston County is particularly vulnerable to exempt wells. Our county has the second highest number of wells of any county in the state, and we are seeing particular pressure for growth and development in our rural areas where exempt wells are used most often. In addition, the Deschutes and Chehalis River basins are in particular danger because their low summer flows depend on ground water inflows.

There are four main kinds of permit exemptions for wells:

  • Unspecified water use for livestock, both in terms of quantity and acreage, as long as it's used exclusively for direct livestock activities. The State Attorney General has interpreted this to mean unlimited use.
  • Watering a non-commercial lawn or garden at unlimited quantities for reasonable use on one-half acre or less.
  • Water for a single home or groups of homes, limited to a total of 5,000 gallons per day. This exemption created the legendary "six-pack", where multiple wells were drilled for a group of developments with six houses on each well. Water for industrial purposes, including irrigation, limited to 5,000 gallons per day with no acre limit. -}

    Therefore in theory, you could drill a well for a small community of six houses, and each homeowner could drill two more wells, one for gardening and one for livestock, and none of the thirteen wells would be subject to a permit.

    However, a convergence of issues may trigger new action leading to the first real reform of the exempt well statutes. In eastern Washington, Easterday Ranches is proposing to operate a 30,000 head cattle feedlot. About two-thirds of the water needed for this operation will be obtained with exempt wells: a total of about 163 million gallons per year. Environmental groups have sued to stop this operation but the courts have yet to take any action.

    In Kittitas County, the Department of Ecology recently issued a moratorium on exempt wells after the County began issuing building permits for developments with up to fourteen houses on each exempt well. Both environmentalists and downstream water users were concerned about the impact of these exempt wells on instream flows.

    Exempt wells could harm the environment and public health in a variety of ways:

    • Every well drilled is a possible route for pollution to reach ground water and contaminate it.
    • The amount and timing of water consumed by the many exempt wells in a watershed could have an impact on wetlands, springs, streams and rivers by reducing summer water levels and low flows.
    • Exempt wells can be mismanaged, allowing contamination of water supplies through uncontrolled backflow or leakage.
    • Exempt wells undercut efforts at water conservation. Exempt wells can "mine" ground water unsustainably, using up a resource with no thought to future needs. -}

      A number of possible reforms are being proposed to tighten up management of exempt wells:

      • Metering of all new exempt wells. Currently the amount of water used by these wells can only be estimated.
      • Stricter rules and stronger enforcement to ensure that exempt wells are used only for the allowed purpose and kept separate from other wells and public water systems.
      • Prohibition of exempt wells in basins that have been closed to further use. Prohibition of exempt wells where a public water supply is available to serve. -}

        Because of the Easterday and Kittitas County situations, this issue is heating up to a level where changes in state law are possible. Let Department of Ecology, the Governor, and your legislators know how you feel about this issue. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to end the slow death of our water environment from a thousand punctures.

        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