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Well drilling banned in western Kittitas County

Well drilling banned in western Kittitas County
Washington state water regulators banned all well drilling in western Kittitas County, effectively halting most new development in a favorite dry-side oasis for Seattleites.
By Jonathan Martin
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington state water regulators banned all well drilling in western Kittitas County, effectively halting most new development in a favorite dry-side oasis for Seattleites.
The emergency ban announced by the state Department of Ecology is effective for 120 days, but the agency signaled it could extend the ban unless Kittitas County agrees to more limits on water usage.
Ecology Director Jay Manning acknowledged the potential economic impact, but said negotiations with Kittitas County commissioners had broken down.
"The county has struggled to come to a decision and has missed three previous decision deadlines related to finalizing an agreement with Ecology," Manning said in a statement. "Faced with a management gap, we are adopting this temporary rule."
At issue is rapid growth in upper Kittitas County — the corridor of scenic Cascade foothills unfurling along I-90 from the Snoqualmie Pass toward Ellensburg — that has been lubricated by the drilling of individual wells. Those wells are exempt from the state's complex, regimented water-rights rules by a 1945 law written for rural homesteaders.
Water in the Yakima Basin is entirely spoken for, and no new water rights have been issued since 1993. But under the "exempt well" loophole, 3,021 new wells have been drilled in Kittitas County since 1998, each allowed to draw up to 5,000 gallons a day. The state is concerned that those wells are effectively stealing water from the established water-right holders.
Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell disputed Manning's contention that the county had blown deadlines. Instead, the county believed Ecology was trying to impose illegal restrictions on the exempt wells, and has asked for a legal interpretation by the state attorney general.
"We've operated in good faith," said Jewell. "It appears this moratorium is another example of an overreaching reaction by a state authority. For them to come out of nowhere and kill a fly with a sledgehammer, well, it's disappointing."
The impact of the new wells is unclear, and the subject of a heated local debate. A hydrogeological study of the area was funded by the state Legislature earlier this year, but has yet to begin.
Ron Cridlebaugh, executive director of the Economic Development Group of Kittitas County, said the moratorium would hurt.
"If you can't be drilling wells, you can't be building homes, and it makes it tough for those guys to make a living," he said. "A 120-day moratorium puts them pretty much out of the building season."
Negotiations between Ecology and the county began after a local group called Aqua Permanente protested the proliferation of wells.
Melissa Bates, a sheep farmer near Cle Elum who helped found the group, said the moratorium is the right approach until the hydrogeology study is finished.
"If we run into areas where we have wells run dry, that will kill the economics faster than anything else," she said.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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