When it comes to water, that is where counties find themselves. Without water that is potable and physically available, the property owner cannot get a building permit. Now water has to be “legally available” too. In several Washington counties lawsuits relating to the flow of a river have stopped the use of new wells. For Pend Oreille County our risk is increased by a 1976 Washington Administrative Code (WAC) specific to the Little Spokane watershed which set an instream flow (water level) that has not been met every year. Since the 1976 rule, there have been changes to the law and many legal cases which have redefined the connection between wells and the instream flow in rivers. Because of the changes in case law, Pend Oreille County now finds itself between a rock and a hard spot. The risk is that new wells in the Little Spokane watershed could be banned by Department of Ecology, or the 3 counties in the watershed could face lawsuits from either impacted senior water rights holders or a special interest group.
This is an issue that could affect each county in the Little Spokane watershed, not just one county. That is the reason Pend Oreille County is willing to coordinate with Spokane and Stevens County on a study to look for solutions. Studying the problem and possible solutions is the responsible thing to do as we work to address the risks. We also want to take a look at future benefits for our own county. One idea is to supplement the Little Spokane at low flow times with water from the Pend Oreille River to meet the instream flow standard. This is not a movement of water directly to Spokane County for development but rather an increase of flow during low flow times so the levels specified by the WAC are met and all the counties in the watershed are protected legally. With new technologies there may be some innovative ways to store and safely infiltrate water to benefit both watersheds. We have heard from people concerned about possible impacts in both the Pend Oreille River and in the Little Spokane River. This study will explore the feasibility and impacts as well as other ideas.
Working with our colleagues in other counties who are dealing with the same problems will help us to understand the challenges we face concerning water law, and the opportunities we wish to provide for future generations. The Commissioners are committed to finding a solution while protecting the interests of our neighbors throughout Pend Oreille County. We hear your concerns and understand that any negative impacts are to be avoided. Our goal is to both preserve future water use for residential, commercial, industrial, and economic development for the entire county while preserving what land owners on the rivers are enjoying now.
As the study progresses there will be public meetings and feedback opportunities. We welcome your comments and interest and look forward to hearing from you so that we can address your concerns as these studies progress.