By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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County officials discussed a proposed memorandum of understanding with the state agency Monday, and the three commissioners will consider approving it next week.
The three-page document outlines the relationship between the county and Ecology — and lists the roles and responsibilities of each entity — to implement a controversial rule that Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant signed
The rule, which takes effect Jan. 2, was drafted to protect water supplies in the eastern half of Water Resources Inventory Area 18 between Bagley Creek and Sequim Bay.
It sets minimum in-stream flows and requires the owner of a new well to mitigate his or her use of water, including the purchase of credits through a so-called “water exchange.”
The memorandum of understanding does not delve into the mechanics of the water exchange.
It simply outlines the relationship between the county and Ecology and lists the roles and responsibilities of each entity.
“This truly is the end of the beginning,” said Commissioner Jim McEntire, the board liaison for water law.
“We’re starting the beginning of the end, I suppose, for how this is actually going to work for folks.”
McEntire, who helped negotiate the memorandum of understanding, recommended that his fellow commissioners sign the document Tuesday.
“To get to this point is better than the alternative, which would be litigation and continuing to fight,” Commissioner Mike Chapman said.
“This does lay out a framework to implement a rule that has now been signed. And we need to make sure that it works for our community.”
Chapman thanked McEntire and the county staffers who have worked on the rule for years.
“Mention should go also to Sen. Jim Hargrove,” McEntire said, referring to the Democratic senator from Hoquiam who represents the 24th District, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.
“He and I have worked very closely together to try to accomplish that one thing, which is: ‘Let’s have a rule, but let’s not have a rule and have it create hurt or uncertainty economically,’” McEntire said.
“There’s still some uncertainly about the water exchange, but that will rapidly resolve itself.”
Aspects of the new rule, especially the requirement of mitigation for new water uses, drew hundreds of protesters at public hearings on the proposal.
“My objective has been to try to make this rule as least hurtful as it can possibly be for our citizens, while accomplishing the worthwhile objectives that it sets out to do,” McEntire said.
Ecology, which administers and enforces state water law, will approve a mitigation plan “preparatory to the water exchange,” McEntire added.
More than five years ago, Ecology envisioned an “umbrella entity,” such as a water bank, to create a mitigation plan to cover new water uses, county hydrologist Ann Soule said.
“The rule says that mitigation is required, and anybody who wants to use new water needs to propose mitigation, and Ecology has the authority to accept that proposal or not,” Soule explained.
“So, any new user can do that.”
The Ecology rule falls largely on permit-exempt wells, which allow up to 5,000 gallons per day for domestic uses. Existing wells won’t be affected by the new rule.
Currently, no water right is needed before such a permit-exempt well is drilled.
McEntire said mitigation can occur in one of at least four ways.
“If the individual landowner can prove that there’s no consumptive use, no mitigation’s required,” McEntire said.
“I can’t imagine what that would be, but that’s at least a theoretical possibility.
“No. 2 is if the individual landowner purchases something from somebody else privately — in other words, they purchase a portion of somebody’s water rights that covers their property — then there’s no need to purchase a credit from the water bank.”
He added: “Or they can come up with their own mitigation plan satisfactory to the Department of Ecology.
“Or they can purchase a credit, or credits plural, depending on the flavor of their uses from the mitigation bank. So there’s four possibilities, and the water bank is just one of those four.”
McEntire and others negotiated with Ecology to budget funds to purchase water rights as mitigation for future developers.
“We’ve got a couple of political next steps to make sure that we encourage the governor to keep this Ecology request — put this Ecology request — in her budget … and to ask the next governor to not take it out,” McEntire said.
McEntire said he would like the state to fund about 20 years’ worth of mitigation for the domestic use of future permit-exempt wells.
Chapman said the water-management rule ultimately will enable the county to be a player in the housing market recovery.
“We need to get to a point that this works for our community instead of tying up in litigation and the court, taking away the ability for people to move forward with projects in the new year,” Chapman said.
“National statistics are showing that the housing recovery is in full swing in many parts of the country, and it won’t be that long before it’s in full swing here.”
Chapman added: “If we didn’t have a plan moving forward where people could obtain water, we could be left out of what is probably going to be a very robust housing recovery across America over the next five years.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.