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Water War: The Fight Over Non-Permitted Wells

These days property owners need a permit to do just about anything. But not to drill a well. Now with explosive growth in parts of the rural Northwest – and water in short supply - some are asking: should there be more restrictions on well-drilling? Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.
On a windswept farmer’s field near Ellensburg, Washington - a bright yellow drilling rig burrows into the ground. Dirt flies as the drill stem spins and hammers in search of water. Fifth generation well-driller Jeremy Bach monitors the operation.
Reporter: “How will you know when you hit water?
Bach: “You see it (laughs). It’s pretty obvious.”
Reporter: “It gushes?”
Bach: “Ya, it gushes out.”
A well like this for a single family home or small group of homes is called an exempt well. That means no permit or water right is required to drill as long as the users don’t exceed 5-thousand gallons a day. It’s a loophole that was written into the law back in 1945.
Piercy: “It was clearly intended to be for rural development rather than suburban development.”
Darryl Piercy is Director of Community Development in Kittitas County.
Piercy: “I think as communities have grown and as more development has taken place we’re seeing higher densities wanting to utilize exempt wells.”
In other words, these days developers in Kittitas County are using the exempt well loophole to provide water to entire subdivisions. Add to that the retirees and well-to-do Westsiders who are snapping up individual homesites. Last year in Kittitas County nearly 4-hundred new wells were drilled – a 60 percent increase from just a few years ago. Critics call it a runaway train. And fear existing wells and streams will dry up. They point to the town of Roslyn which has had its water supply shut off during dry summers.
Bates: “If my well becomes impaired, my land becomes valueless.”
Melissa Bates is a goat farmer turned activist who petitioned the state to place a moratorium on new wells in Kittitas County. Bates thinks it’s irresponsible to allow hundreds of new homes and wells in a drought-prone area. At least until a study is done to assess the potential impact.
Bates: “We’d like to know our aquifer, we’d like to know what we have, what the resource is. That’s step one because we don’t want to run into problems down the road, we don’t want to have to shut people off, we don’t want to have to have to deal with impaired wells.”
Concern about exempt wells isn’t limited to Kittitas County or even the dry side of the Cascades. It’s also an issue in wet Western Washington and in Oregon where there’s an estimated 300-thousand exempt wells statewide. Jay Manning heads Washington’s Department of Ecology. He says this is an emerging issue that eventually the legislature will have to address.
Manning: “You know we’re in the era of climate change and a shrinking snowpack where if anything competition for water is going to get worse not better and I think it would behoove the legislature and the government in general and the citizenry to look at this exemption and ask the question is it an appropriate public policy for 2008.”
But not everyone is convinced there’s a problem. Well-driller Jeremy Bach has become a vocal opponent of limiting new exempt wells. He thinks it’s a back door way to thwart development
Bach: “There isn’t any evidence supporting any of these arguments that we do have a water problem here. Wells aren’t going dry. And kind of in my eyes you’ve got to have some hard evidence in order to impose restrictions.”
In Kittitas County the plan is to do a study to see what impact if any wells are having on groundwater and stream flows. There’s also a proposal to enact some restrictions on new wells – but not impose a moratorium. But even that compromise faces heated opposition among property owners who feel the government is creating regulations before the science is in.