MOUNT VERNON — Skagit County debuted a process Monday that makes it possible for all rural residents to have access to well water.
In a presentation to the state water availability task force, Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said the county will issue building permits to residential well users who are willing to install a tank that stores rainwater, then put the water back into the ground, thereby mitigating water used.
Will Honea, senior deputy civil prosecuting attorney with the county, said the county started working on this plan in January, soon before Skagit County was left out of a piece of state water availability legislation that is often called the Hirst Fix.
The county worked with consultant Associated Earth Sciences to create this plan.
Honea said homes with septic systems return about 90 percent of the water they use back into the ground. The idea is for a household to release water equal to the remaining 10 percent, fully mitigating its use.
“Your obligation legally is to put back the water you consumptively use,” Honea said.
The county set 350 gallons as the daily use, which Honea said is a generous estimate of use, in order to make certain water use will be fully mitigated.
“We need a solution that’s going to be so eminently reasonable that no one can object,” he said.
This means, on average, households using this plan will add more water to the Skagit River basin than they use, while also getting an emergency water source.
To comply with the county’s plan, homeowners need a 10,000-gallon tank, electronic monitoring equipment and a mechanism to continually release water.
Honea estimates it would cost about $20,000 per household to implement the plan.
He said Joe Mentor of Mentor Law Group, who has experience working on water availability in the state, told the county he believes the plan would stand up to legal challenges.
The plan has been in place for several months, but has not been publicly discussed. Three or four people have started the process of getting building permits under this plan, Honea said.
He and Janicki both said the same plan has been in use in Kittitas County, and that they believe this means the state Department of Ecology doesn’t object to such a plan. Janicki said she talked to a Kittitas county commissioner who confirmed this.
Dave Christensen, program development and operations section manager in the state Department of Ecology’s Water Resources Program, said he had not heard that Kittitas County had implemented a similar plan, and was unsure whether that was accurate.
He said Ecology doesn’t know enough about the Skagit County mitigation plan to support it.
“There are still a few technical questions,” he said.
Generally, he said Ecology supports the county’s desire to find legal water access for residents, but would prefer it find a solution that will be supported by all stakeholders, which in Skagit County includes the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
“Broad agreement leads to implementable solutions,” he said.
Larry Wasserman, the environmental policy director for the Swinomish, said the tribe doesn’t yet know if it will oppose this new mitigation plan.
“If it’s three people, it’s a different impact than 3,000,” he said.
He said the county has yet to respond to a Sept. 20 letter from the tribe that asks the county to estimate how many homeowners will seek this method of mitigation.
Until the tribe has the answer to this question, Wasserman said it cannot make a decision on whether to support the plan.
In her presentation, Janicki also spoke about a mitigation effort operated jointly by Ecology and the county — a recently finalized water bank for up to 96 homes along Nookachamps Creek between the Skagit River and Big Lake.
A water bank purchases unused water rights and repurposes them for property owners who have no legal access to water.
Priority will be given to 17 existing homes that do not have a legal source of water, while the rest of the bank’s water will be available for new uses on a first-come, first-served basis, according to an Ecology news release.
Janicki said neither of these solutions are perfect, but that Skagit County is past the stage where it can expect to allow for residential well use without some sort of mitigation.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a ‘magic wand’ cure,” she said. “I don’t see us ever going back to the way it was before.”