The Lewis County Board of Commissioners voted Monday morning to impose a moratorium on permits seeking water extraction in rural Lewis County and certain standalone food and beverage manufacturing applications — much to the appreciation of a large gathering of Lewis County Water Alliance members who have fiercely voiced their opposition to a proposed Crystal Geyser water bottling facility in Randle.
The moratorium, said civil deputy prosecutor Eric Eisenberg, will allow time to study possible changes to zoning code that will protect natural water and rural sites from harmful development.
The measure comes following a push by opponents of the plant to disallow large-scale commercial water bottling. A group known as the Lewis County Water Alliance is slated to have a workshop with the Planning Commission in August to further discuss that request. They asked commissioners for a moratorium until the land-use panel weighs in — preventing Crystal Geyser from filing a permit to get “grandfathered” in before changes can be made.
The issue centers around the county’s decision last year to allow standalone food and beverage manufacturing in rural zones — a change designed to accommodate breweries and wineries, but one that opened the door to Crystal Geyser’s proposal for a 100,000 square foot bottling plant that would extract 400 gallons of water per minute from springs at a property on Peters Road. Members of the Planning Commission are considering rolling back that change.
Since then, Eisenberg said, opponents of the Crystal Geyser project asked whether it was a mistake to open the door for such a large company to propose such a significant project. That’s a question, Eisenberg said, that’s worthy of careful consideration. A public hearing is set for 10 a.m. Aug. 26.
“At the end of the day, a moratorium is a temporary measure. It’s just a pause button. It can be changed and lifted at any time — as quickly as a Monday meeting can occur,” said Eisenberg, adding that in the meantime multiple perspectives on necessary zoning amendments will be heard.
The moratorium is narrow so as not to be too disruptive to those seeking permits, but also affects all rural property in Lewis County — so as not to target Crystal Geyser’s project specifically and to prevent any further development residents say would compromise the rural character of the county landscape.
While the moratorium pauses permits allowing the extraction of water for sale, it allows water to be extracted and placed back into the waterway — a practice of certain mining and industrial facilities to extract elements from the water. And while it pauses applications for standalone food and beverage manufacturing sites, it won’t affect commerce that doesn’t hit the threshold “below which Ecology doesn’t make you get a permit.”
He used the example of a lemonade stand. Water taken to make lemonade will be minuscule enough that it won’t be affected by the moratorium; it’s the large-scale extraction that falls under its parameters.
Additionally, it will still allow studies of water extraction to be conducted.
Before all three county commissioners voted to put the moratorium in place, several community members made public comments urging them to do so, and thanking the county for taking their concerns into account.
East County residents, tribal members and environmentalists have voiced opposition to the project, saying it will compromise the rural nature of the land and affect water levels and fish habitats.
Commissioner Gary Stamper, whose district includes the Peters Road property, thanked the Water Alliance for their persistence and their attendance at a planning commission meeting — saying it’s the input of various committees and commissions that help the commissioners make the best decisions.
Upon the passage of the moratorium, a crowd of people — many wearing blue denoting their membership or support of the Water Alliance — took to their feet in a standing ovation, many holding signs that read “Thank You Lewis County.”