Mike Leita

Mike Leita

Yakima County commissioners got their first look at a draft groundwater agreement with the state late last week and liked what they saw.

“It’s unique in the sense that it’s something no one else has attempted,” said Commissioner Mike Leita. “I think it has potential to be very groundbreaking.”

The proposed three-page agreement calls for the county to partner with the state Department of Ecology in finding water supplies for future rural development by identifying groundwater sources and determining how they relate to surface water before issuing any permits for development.

Leita called it innovative and the first of its kind in the state.

“It may read simple but it has a lot of dynamics, so we have to ponder and we have to communicate with all interested parties,” he said.

The agreement would allow the county to move forward with its water utility, which would purchase senior water rights for future rural development. In turn, wells drilled from those water rights would be metered and users would be charged a fee based on use.

For decades, water in the Yakima River Basin has been over allocated. For several years, the county has worked with federal, state and Yakama Nation officials, environmental groups, developers and farmers to devise basin-wide water storage and conservation programs to assure enough water for farms, fish and development. The county’s proposed water utility is just one component, and the draft agreement presented Friday is the first substantive step forward, Leita said.

“This is our first real attempt at satisfying our responsibility to meet (state) Growth Management Act requirements to demonstrate adequate water supply for exempt wells,” he said. “This is the first tangible document involving all parties to create a system to permit exempt wells within legal requirements and satisfying all parties.”

Exempt wells are those that draw less than 5,000 gallons per day to serve homes, small businesses, noncommercial lawns, gardens and livestock. These wells have been unique in that they are exempt from requiring a water rights permit.

The plan is intended to avoid what happened in Kittitas County, where senior water right holders sued saying they’d been hurt by a proliferation of exempt wells.

Now all parties will have a chance to review the proposed agreement before it’s finalized. That includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Yakama Nation, the two largest senior water rights holders in the state. Area builders, real estate officials, farmers and residents also will have to chance to review the proposal, Leita said.

“There’s going to be other minds and other interests that look at this hard to see if it’s tangible,” he said. “But it’s a significant first step. It’s an attempt to deal with a very controversial and complex topic of exempt wells.”

Once a final document is produced that all parties agree on, a public hearing will be held before final approval, Leita said.

Leita anticipates extensive fine-tuning will take place before arriving at a final document.

“It’s in our mindset that we want to get this established, make sure that it’s successful, and get it in place.”