The Washington Supreme Court on July 28 ruled that Kittitas County must adopt a comprehensive plan and development regulations that are protective of groundwater, pursuant to Growth Management Act laws.
In upholding the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board’s invalidation of the County’s regulations, the Court concluded that “the County is not precluded and, in fact, is required to plan for the protection of water resources in its land use planning” and that the County’s evasion of water permitting laws “could come at a great cost to the existing water rights of nearby property owners . . . if subdivisions and developments overuse the well permit exemption, contrary to the law.”
In a statement from the group Environmental Law and Policy:
“Many counties are doing exactly what Kittitas has done, allowing developers to use the domestic well exemption from water right permitting to serve multiple parcels. The Court is directing that counties stop this illegal activity,” said Rachael Osborn, director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP), a public interest water policy organization that filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case.
“The Court’s holding affirms a common-sense proposition: counties must make sure that new development relies on legal uses of water,” said Amanda Goodin, an attorney with Earthjustice representing CELP in this case. “Requiring responsible water management is absolutely critical for Washington, so that our water resources can support healthy ecosystems and sustainable development moving forward.”
In Kittitas County, land use developers were dividing their properties into separate limited liability corporations to evade the rule that only one exempt well can be used per subdivision. New groundwater rights cannot be issued in Kittitas County, which is part of the Yakima River basin where water is over-allocated and “junior” water users are required to curtail their use every few years.
The Supreme Court held that Kittitas County’s development regulations should require land use applicants to disclose their ownership of multiple parcels in order to determine whether water is legally available via permit exempt wells. The Court also ruled in favor of the conservation groups on several other land use issues.
“The court’s decision is another milestone in the continuing battle to limit water usage in areas that are over-appropriated,” said Osborn. “Counties should take heed.”