Controversy over Whatcom Co. water wells

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) - Conservative property-rights advocates are worried about proposed restrictions on wells they fear could mean the end of the rural way of life in Whatcom County.

The well controversy arose after environmentalists challenged county rules that they believe don't do enough to protect water resources.

In response, the state Growth Management Hearings Board issued a ruling that could block property owners from drawing water from their wells, if the basin where they live is closed to new water rights. The county has appealed the ruling to the state Court of Appeals.

County officials are addressing a list of rural-growth rules that are out of compliance with state law. According to an order issued Nov. 21 by the Hearings Board, the county resolved five of the nine issues that remain in a drawn-out dispute with environmentalists. But one of the unresolved matters, the water resources controversy, remains.

The county will likely miss a Dec. 4 deadline imposed by the Hearings Board to come into compliance on water resources rules. County officials have asked the Hearings Board for an extension to February. The Planning Commission hearing has been rescheduled for Dec. 12.

The planning commissioners voted unanimously to cancel an October public hearing because they didn't want to undermine the county's appeal. They also thought a decision that would alter the lives of rural property owners was moving forward without enough public involvement.

"I don't know about you, but I'm on a well," Planning Commissioner Mary Beth Teigrob said on Oct. 24, after she moved to cancel the public hearing. "I know people who have land and expect to be able to drill a well some time, and from what I can see this is going to put an end to that."

The state Department of Ecology has been allowing wells on rural land after restrictions on water use were put in place in 1985 to protect salmon habitat. Some basins were closed to new water rights that drew from surface water or groundwater that is connected to streams.

If courts determine wells should be restricted, then development in rural areas could be significantly limited. Even existing wells, because of their "junior" water-right status, could be challenged, said Jean Melious, an attorney representing the four citizens who have petitioned against the county's water rules.