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Stockwater & Exempt Wells
Exempt Wells Overview
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Multiple Kittitas County developments are shown here, using exempt wells in the Fowler Creek watershed as a source of water.  Multiple exempt wells may adversely impact senior water right holders.  Kittitas County is immediately east of King County and has experienced extraordinary rates of residential growth.  Click on image to enlarge.  (Photo by Melissa Bates)

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After years of dealing with a recalcitrant county planning department that has never seen a plat it didn’t like and does not care about the impact of new development on water resources, Kittitas County citizens formed the group Aqua Permanente and filed a petition with the Department of Ecology.  The petition asked Ecology to prohibit new wells in Kittitas County – including exempt wells -- until more is known about the impact of new wells on existing water rights and instream flows in local streams and the Yakima River.

CELP helped draft the Aqua Permanente petition, and joined in the petition.  Ecology was required to respond within 60 days, or by November 9th.

Ecology responded by hosting two “listening sessions,” one in Cle Elum and one in Ellensburg, in October.  Although Ecology’s press release described the comments at these public meetings as “largely opposed” to the petition – in fact substantial support was expressed for finding a solution to the problem both at the public meeting in Ellensburg and in written public comments.

Interestingly, at a water resources conference held in Seattle on October 4, Ecology Director Jay Manning told the audience that “the era of the exempt well is over.”  As it turns out, the era of “the era of the exempt well is over” was over in a matter of weeks!

Here is Ecology’s response to the Aqua Permanente petition:

(1)  Ecology denied the request for a moratorium on new wells in Kittitas County – even though senior surface water users in Kittitas County are being curtailed during low-water years and it is assumed that ground water and surface water is connected.  In other words – new houses using exempt wells are taking water from senior water users – but Ecology is unwilling to protect the senior rights.

(2)  Ecology negotiated an “agreement in principle” with Kittitas County to allow continued rural subdivisions based on exempt wells.

(3)  In particular, Ecology agreed that Kittitas County may continue to permit housing to be built at the rate of 12 houses per 40 acres, each allowed to use up to 400 gallons per day (no one knows where this figure came from).  Meanwhile, Kittitas County recently approved several new plats that allow even denser developments.

(4)  The agreement in principle calls for metering and a ground water study and mitigation and other items – but ONLY if Kittitas County agrees. 

Instead of standing up for senior water rights and protection of flows in rivers, Ecology has virtually guaranteed that developers may continue to develop property based on exempt wells -- regardless of the impact on people and the environment. 

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       Kittitas County

      Water Scarcity and Exempt Wells

Pieces of the puzzle.  

Note how one development fits like a piece of the puzzle with three other developments to form 56-home “gated community”.  The County authorized exempt wells for all four developments at the same time.  Water rights in the Yakima Basin are over-appropriated, and yet the County gave away the public’s water for this large development not knowing of the impacts on senior water right holders and the Yakima River watershed.   Click on image to enlarge.

Diverting water from the Yakima River for irrigation.  The Yakima River basin is a fully appropriated basin:  water supply is limited. In drought years, junior water right holders are curtailed from use – including the City of Roslyn. Despite citizens repeatedly raising concerns about the area’s water future, the county has not denied a single building permit to a developer based on lack of water.  On September 10, Aqua Permanente filed a petition requesting that the state withdraw all unappropriated water resources until such time as sufficient information is available on groundwater availability and sustainability.

Kittitas County is immediately east of King County and has experienced extraordinary rates of residential growth in recent years, the third highest in the state in 2006. As of April 2007 more than 6,000 unimproved lots had been created in Kittitas County.  The source of water for almost all of these lots will be exempt wells. Since 2002, the county has approved over 1,200 such wells without knowledge of water availability.  Developers may not use a single well for more than 6 homes, but are illegally connecting exempt wells in “daisy chain” fashion to serve a larger number of new homes.

Yakima River and Upper Kittitas County

Abuse of the domestic well exemption is a longstanding problem in the Yakima Basin.  In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that domestic wells are just like any other water right and subject to the priority system of western water law:   first in time, first in right.  Despite the Court’s ruling, Kittitas County is allowing use of domestic wells without regard to the harm to water right holders, including farmers, the Yakama Nation, and municipalities such as Roslyn. Thousands of senior and junior water right holders could be affected.  Google Earth

click on image to enlarge

Well driller near Ellensburg.

Photo:  Mike Siegel, Seattle Times

Click on image for full story.

Emergency Rule for Upper Kittitas Valley,

click here for more.  (map:  Yakima Herald)

Kittitas Valley - an epicenter of state groundwater debates.