Development to resume in parched Little Spokane Watershed

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Spokane County will resume issuing construction permits in the Little Spokane Watershed, more than a year after permitting was stalled by a controversial court decision, state and county officials said in a news release Monday.

An agreement with the state Department of Ecology will allow Spokane County to buy and sell water rights, and issue building permits in about 40 percent of the watershed, which encompasses the northern part of the county as well as parts of Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, according to the news release.

In April, Spokane County commissioners allocated more than $1.2 million to create a so-called “water bank” in conjunction with the two counties to the north. It will enable the county to buy water rights from some landowners and sell them to other landowners who are seeking to build homes in the river basin.

The water bank is a response to the state Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hirst v. Whatcom County, which requires anyone seeking a construction permit to prove there’s enough water in the ground to supply a proposed development, without depleting river flows or infringing on a neighbor’s water right.

The Hirst decision was lauded by environmental groups including Seattle-based Futurewise, which brought the litigation. The ruling effectively halted development in the Little Spokane Watershed, where groundwater has been scarce for years and river flows do not meet state targets designed to protect fish and other wildlife.

Development in the watershed faced obstacles long before the Hirst decision, when the Department of Ecology was responsible for determinations about water availability. No new water rights have been issued there for more than two decades, according to the news release.

State lawmakers are under pressure to address the Hirst decision, and some have proposed a comprehensive water-banking program for areas affected by instream flow rules. In the news release, Commissioner Al French said the local water bank puts Spokane County “one step ahead of the game.”

The county’s water resources manager, Mike Hermanson, said the Hirst decision has threatened property values “in a significant area of north Spokane County,” and the water bank will “enable property owners to build new homes with the assurance that they are in compliance with state water law.”

The county will begin accepting applications for stream-flow mitigation certificates on Wednesday for domestic water users on the Little Spokane Watershed. More information about the certificates, and how to apply for them, can be found at SpokaneCounty.org/water.

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