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Spokane County adopts ‘interim emergency ordinance’ in response to controversial water-rights decision

November 2, 2016 GMT

In response to a controversial water-rights decision by the state’s highest court, Spokane County has adopted an “interim emergency ordinance” that officials say will prevent a “moratorium” on building permits.

“This is an important step to ensuring Spokane County follows the law, as interpreted by the Washington Supreme Court, while also protecting property rights of our citizens,” Commissioner Al French said in a news release Tuesday. He added that the decision could have “a dramatic impact” on builders and developers.

The so-called Hirst decision, which took effect Oct. 27, stipulates that new developments can’t diminish water supplies to senior right-holders, or cause stream flows to drop below environmental targets set by the state. It primarily affects rural property owners who rely on permit-exempt wells rather than public water utilities.

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Proponents say the decision protects fish and ensures that new homes will have an adequate water supply. A 2013 investigation by The Spokesman-Review found that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in rural parts of the county live without enough water for basic needs, much less the luxury of a green lawn. Some residents paid tens of thousands of dollars to tap into public water lines.

Critics, meanwhile, call the decision a major obstacle in the quest to obtain building permits, as permit-seekers must prove there’s enough water in the ground to support a new development. That task previously was left to the state Department of Ecology.

County officials said they received 453 permit applications – about nine times the usual number – during the week before the decision took effect.

The new ordinance “sets forth what the county has determined is sufficient evidence of an adequate water supply,” according to the news release.

Spokane County encompasses six watersheds. Of those, only the Little Spokane River watershed, in the northern part of the county, has a rule setting minimum stream flows. The ordinance says a permit-seeker must have a water right that predates the instream flow rule – which was enacted in 1976.

In other parts of the county, the ordinance says, a new well can’t be drilled within 500 feet of any existing one.

County officials plan to hold a public hearing, to consider making the ordinance permanent, within 60 days.

The court’s ruling appears to have resonated with state lawmakers, too. In the news release, French said the Legislature “is likely going to be addressing the Hirst decision in the upcoming session.”

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