YAKIMA, Wash. - Rural Yakima County residents could someday have something in common with their more urban neighbors: water bills.

Yakima County officials are considering a proposal that would assess fees on water taken from rural domestic wells drilled in the future.

The fees — which would not apply to existing wells — would be part of a larger plan to avoid the kinds of conflict and litigation that plagued rural Kittitas County, where, like Yakima County, water is in short supply.

Under the plan, the county will develop a county water utility, which would buy senior water rights that will allow rural development to continue well into the future. Water from wells tapping senior water rights would be metered and property owners would be assessed a fee based on the amount used.

The county’s water supply has long been over-allocated, and county officials have been working on a plan for several years to assure there will be enough for farms, homes and fish in the future.

“Our goal here is to not constrain building permits, rural development, because of inadequate water supply,” Commissioner Mike Leita said.

County staff will meet with the state Department of Ecology Wednesday Wednesdayto discuss an agreement that would allow the water utility project to move forward. A draft agreement will be presented to county commissioners on Friday for review.

But before finalizing the agreement with the ecology department, the county wants consent from the two largest senior water rights holders in the county — the Yakama Nation and federal Bureau of Reclamation. A public hearing on the matter also would be held, Leita said.

The agreement will lay the foundation for the proposed water utility, he said.

“This is the first step,” Leita said. “It’s not the final step but it’s a significant step.”

So far, there’s been no estimate regarding how much fees will cost.

The plan is expected to get a jump start from a $500,000 grant that the ecology department gave to Yakima and Kittitas counties to purchase senior water rights.

The county’s plan, called the Yakima County Water Resource System, aims to avoid the problems that Kittitas County ran into when senior water right holders sued saying they’ve been hurt by a proliferation of what are known as “exempt” wells — those wells that draw less than 5,000 gallons per day to serve homes, small businesses, noncommercial lawns, gardens and livestock. These wells are unique in that they are exempt from water right permitting.

In response, the state ecology department barred Kittitas County from permitting any future exempt wells in rural developments without first providing proof of adequate water supply.

Yakima County could run into the same dilemma if action isn’t taken, Leita said.

“We are very vulnerable, and we knew a couple of years ago that a senior water right holder could raise issues with an exempt well,” he said. “This is coming to a pivot point, and we have not kept our heads in the sand.”

A recent state Supreme Court ruling now holds counties responsible for showing adequate water supply for each exempt well that is permitted. Yakima County’s program will require proof of adequate water supply as part of its permitting process, Leita said.

Kittitas County is embarking on a similar plan.

“Kittitas County is in a good position now,” said Sage Park, ecology department regional director. “Yakima County is working hard to develop a program as well, and I think they are in a good position to move forward.”

Yakima County Public Services Director Vern Redifer said the $500,000 state grant could purchase enough senior water rights to provide for development for at least the next five years, maybe longer depending on the market.

Senior water rights go for anywhere from $3,500 an acre foot up to $15,000 an acre foot, he said. An acre foot is enough water to cover one acre with one foot of water.

Under the current proposal, all new wells would be equipped with a meter and users would be charged a fee based on amounts they use, but the program isn’t as simple as buying up senior water rights and then allowing exempt wells to be dug anywhere. The plan requires an understanding of how surface water relates to groundwater throughout the Yakima basin. Wells will only be drilled in places directly affected by the water rights that have been purchased, Leita said.

“There are some areas in the county where the county may not be able to issue a permit because we will not be able to demonstrate an adequate water supply,” he said.

The county has until June to have its water plan in place in order to remain in compliance with the state Growth Management Act.

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at philipferolito@twitter.com