Thurston County Commissioners Consider $600,000 Study in Hirst Decision Fallout


Thurston County is looking to next year as it plans on how to best address water availability issues. 

On Thursday, county staff requested approval for funding of a 2017 project budget of $38,500, $24,750 of which has already been funded through the Stormwater Utility Fund. Staff is requesting an additional $13,750 for non-stormwater related work.   

In addition, county staff asked the commissioners to authorize $600,000 in 2018 to be used to conduct a complete water availability study to comply with the Hirst decision, according to a staff report. 

“This will enable continuation of work to determine water availability throughout the county, in response to the Hirst decision,” the report said.  

The state Supreme Court ruled in the Hirst decision counties are responsible for determining water availability when issuing building permits with permit exempt wells. Counties across the state have been scrambling to determine what effects it will have on rural building. Previously, counties relied on information from the state Department of Ecology because they lacked the resources to conduct their own water surveys. However, the court ruled they can no longer rely on that information. Throughout Thurston County, there are 34,000 permit exempt wells that can draw up to 280 gallons of water a day, The Chronicle reported in February. The average household water use is around 86 gallons a day.

The Legislature was unable to agree on how to address this issue, which is why it did not pass a capital budget. 

When the ruling was handed down in October 2016, the then-county commissioners directed the county’s hydrologists to conduct a water availability study, according to a county press release from August.   

“We are trying to make a good faith effort to look into the requirements of Hirst,” Commissioner Gary Edwards told The Chronicle. “We look at this as an unfunded mandate the state dropped on us.” 

Some of the requested funds are from the Stormwater Utility budget, amounting to $336,125 for the 2018 request, according to the staff report. The remainder of the requested funds will come from another source from the county budget. 

According to the report, it is appropriate to use funds from the stormwater budget for some of the study because they will be used to expand the monitoring network that provides data for managing stream flows and precipitation and groundwater elevations because those functions directly relate to stormwater. However, other aspects, such as determining the withdrawal rates, would not be an appropriate use of the funds. 

The reason for the increase in funding is because the scale of the work will increase in 2018, according to the report. It will include in-depth analysis of very large data sets for water availability, installation of new monitoring stations and equipment in areas where information is limited or out of date, the development and implementation of interagency contracts with the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Survey, and the development of policy questions and options from the commissioners to consider.

The commissioners also have the option to fund the study at the same level as this year for about $27,500 for only work done by the hydrologist. This option would have minimal impacts to funding until the Legislature provides clarity to local governments, the report said. However, it will not make meaningful progress to determine water availability exists for at least 10 years, and it does not meet the intent of the court’s ruling. In addition, if the pre-Hirst process of issuing building permits with certificates of water availability continues, it is probable the county could overallocate new development water consumption within certain basins, according to the staff report. 

The $600,000 option would allow the county to develop policy questions without waiting for a legislative fix and would provide third party reviewed data about water availability in the county as well as fill in gaps in data the county currently has.   

However, it has significant annual costs through 2021 and proposes the hiring of additional staff, according to the report. 

Edwards told The Chronicle the county is looking for additional resources to conduct the study. 

“We are trying to get as much information as possible before we put policy in place,” he said.

One question he asked of staff was if there are any examples of shortages of water. Edwards said there are not any yet.  

He has heard concerns from residents about what the decision means for them and their property. Property values could be impacted by water availability questions, Edwards added. This could further impact some residents who are already dealing with the endangered Mazama pocket gopher, he said. 

Edwards said he expects the commissioners to make a decision about this early next year.