Emergency rule closes new groundwater withdrawals in upper Kittitas County, Wash.

YAKIMA, WA, July 16, 2009 -- The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) will file an emergency rule that closes upper Kittitas County to all new groundwater withdrawals...

YAKIMA, WA, July 16, 2009 -- The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) will file an emergency rule that closes upper Kittitas County to all new groundwater withdrawals, the agency announced Thursday, July 16.

After nearly two years of negotiations, Ecology was unable to gain a commitment from the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners that they were willing to move forward with a memorandum of agreement and alternative rule approach that would have limited the uncontrolled proliferation of so-called "exempt groundwater wells" in upper Kittitas County.

Since 1998, nearly 3,000 wells have been drilled in Kittitas County, prompting concerns that groundwater pumping in the headwaters region of the county threatens senior water users and streamflows in the Yakima Basin. A number of parties, including the citizens group Aqua Permanente, the Yakama Nation, and the city of Roslyn, have asked that Ecology close the groundwater to further appropriation while a groundwater study is completed.

Earlier this week, an emergency rule expired that provided a mechanism for Ecology and the County to co-manage groundwater related to housing developments. The temporary rule reflected commitments the parties made last year in a formal Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), and had been revised and updated three times while the parties worked towards agreement on a permanent groundwater management rule.

"We recognize economic vitality is directly tied to water in the Yakima Basin -- and we have been looking for an approach that would have allowed some limited new uses while also protecting the rights of senior water right holders," explained Ecology director Jay Manning. "We had hoped to move forward as partners with the county to protect this vital resource until more is known about groundwater supplies in the upper county.

"We thought we had reached an agreement that would allow for some development in the upper county and at the same time protect the rights of current and future water users and streamflows in the Yakima River and its tributaries."

A groundwater study designed to gain a better understanding of the connection between groundwater and surface waters was funded by the Legislature and will commence soon.

"Rather than close the groundwater during the study period, Ecology had proposed to partner with the County to (1) limit exempt wells to certain locations and reduced water volumes; (2) require metering of water use, including withdrawals from exempt wells; and (3) require notice to prospective property buyers of potential water shortages," Manning explained. "The county has struggled to come to a decision and has missed three previous decision deadlines related to finalizing an agreement with Ecology. Faced with a management gap, we are adopting this temporary rule."

The emergency rule will be in place for 120 days.

Some new water uses will be allowed under the emergency rule, but only if the depletion of the source will be fully mitigated. Mitigation can generally be achieved by acquiring and transferring or retiring another existing water right from the same source. Some existing sources of mitigation water are already available and Ecology is developing a water banking system to allow for access to mitigation water by new water uses.

Manning noted the agency remains open to a partnership with the county, and is willing to continue negotiations regarding the proposed partnership approach, but that the agency had to put interim protections in place.

>> Click here for more information on the rule

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