Earlier this year state lawmakers and Governor Jay Inslee approved a law addressing rural growth restrictions imposed by the State Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision. Now, a petition by a Seattle-based growth management organization filed due to Benton County’s 10-year Comprehensive Plan may decide how the legislation is applied under the state Growth Management Act (GMA).
Located in southeast Washington, Benton County has an estimated population of 193,500, according to the Office of Financial Management (OFM). It’s a 13 percent increase since 2010, and high estimates by OFM projects the population will reach 300,000 by 2040. Nearly a fifth of residents live in unincorporated communities, and the county’s recently adopted 2017 Comprehensive Plan Periodic Update and zoning regulations are planning for 6,800 new residents in those unincorporated areas over the next 20 years.
However, growth management organization Futurewise says the county’s growth plan fails to ensure an adequate water supply for those residents, among other things. In its April 19 petition to the Growth Management Hearings Board for Eastern Washington, the group claims the county also violated other GMA provisions and requests the update be invalidated because it “substantially interferes with the fulfillment goals of the Growth Management Act.”
The issue of water access was front and center with the Hirst decision, which more or less halted rural development in many parts of the state. Prior, counties relied on the Department of Ecology to decide if sufficient water was available for development. Hirst changed that by shifting the responsibility onto the counties. Many counties began restricting rural development that relied on permit-exempt wells and required costly studies before building.
In January, lawmakers approved SB 6091, allowing building permit applicants to build on land dependent on well water, with restrictions. The legislation also allows local governments to use state Ecology instream flow rules to meet GMA water availability standards. Further, the bill sets requirements for growth planning for counties such as Benton, which is located in the Yakima River basin.
According to Ecology, the Yakima basin has “the most intensive development and use ofwater in the state of Washington,” much of that due to the agricultural industry located in both Benton and Franklin counties.
In a news release, Futurewise claims that under Benton County’s updated zoning map, “more water withdrawals will harm fish and wildlife, and lead to unpredictability for rural home owners and developers.”
A similar criticism was leveled at the county’s update during the comment period by the Yakama
Nation Department of Natural Resources. The agency argued the county’s proposal “fails to adequately address the County’s obligations under the Growth Management Act and associated state law to ensure adequate water supplies are legally and physically available before approving new development.”
The county’s response stated that it planned to “refine its rural exempt well water supply program,” starting this year. That work will also include evaluating interim regulations for ongoing rural development that requires exempt wells.
“Once the science information is developed and a strategy formulated for addressing mitigation of groundwater withdrawals on the Yakima River in Benton County, then the County expects to also update development regulations consistent with the rural water supply strategy.”
When contacted by Lens, an Ecology official wrote in an email that “over the last decade or so we have notified those counties (Yakima, Kittitas, Benton) within the Yakima River Basin that surface water and groundwater resources are connected and essentially one resource. In addition, the Yakima Basin Adjudication has identified priority use dates associated with surface water rights, and will soon be final, so surface water is fully allocated. A USGS (United States Geological Survey) report on groundwater pumping in the Yakima River Basin indicates no new groundwater uses should be permitted unless offset by an existing water right – or backed by obtaining an existing water right in the same withdrawal area.”
While they “didn’t formally comment on the Benton County Comprehensive Plan update, the county has been notified over the years that any new uses should be mitigated, and under the subdivision laws, counties must show there is both legal and adequate water supplies.”
Futurewise has blocked other growth expansion efforts in Benton County. In 2009, they successfully petitioned the hearings board to prevent the 747-acre expansion of the West Richland Urban Growth Area (UGA) to accommodate further economic development, as well as land-use changes within the Richland-West Richland Rural Planning Area. In 2014, it prevented plans by Benton County to expand the city of Kennewick’s urban growth area.
A county spokesperson declined to comment on the petition because it is still under review.
The petition does not stop the county’s planning updates. The hearings board has 180 days from April 19 to make a decision.