Wednesday, October 19, 2016
TWICE ZERO: The first law of holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Whatcom County found itself at the bottom of an enormous deep hole earlier this month when the Washington Supreme Court agreed with the findings of a state growth board that determined the county had failed to protect ground and surface water resources and had oversubscribed its water supply, “granting building permits for houses and subdivisions to be supplied by a permit-exempt well even if the cumulative effect of exempt wells in a watershed reduces the flow in a water course below the minimum instream flow.” The county must come into compliance with state growth goals, justices warned.
Armed with this information, county planners furiously set to work on the depth of the hole with pickaxes and shovels.
“We are continuing to process plat and permit applications per current code,” Planning and Development Services Mark Personius announced in an email to the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. “Therefore, unless and until the County Council or the [Washington Growth Management] Hearings Board (upon remand) takes action directing PDS otherwise, we will continue to schedule permit pre-application meetings, permit application intakes, and process development permit applications that may rely on a permit-exempt well.” The quote was included in a BIAWC email broadcast to its membership.
On remand to the WGMHB, the board will undoubtedly reassign its original order of invalidity to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The board has already repeated its order in several instances, and there is no reason for the county—having gotten its ass kicked on this issue, with none of the county’s expensive legal sophistry bearing fruit—to believe anything substantive has changed.
The broadcast will almost certainly invite another stampede of permit applications similar to that observed in 2009 when spiteful county policymakers—hostile even to the idea of planning—threw open rural areas to a massive upzone, an upzone so large that none of the residential development over the next 20 years need occur in any of the county’s designated urban growth areas (this alone should have rightly triggered a class-action lawsuit from the cities, starved of real estate excise taxes and construction-related revenues). Under Washington law made even more unwieldy by absurd county code, every one of those permit applications gains certain immediate vesting privileges even if incomplete—privileges that once granted cannot be easily clawed back, greatly complicating the work the county faces in trying to comply with the directives of the high court.
We can predict with a high degree of confidence how this may all play out if resolved through the courts: Those with a recognized water right under Washington law (“first in time, first in right”) will be in line ahead of those with longstanding water claims, and those with no rights or claims at all (e.g., 30,000 permit-exempt wells) will be hindmost. Why exacerbate this certainty by advertising for new applications based on wells? Ultimately, it is cruel.
The second law of holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, find some way to climb out.”
Help on issues of water resource inventory does not appear to be speedily on the way, as the county last month finally entered into a belated, aggressively negotiated interlocal agreement with a tangle of tribes, the cities, the public utility district, Ag water board, state fisheries and various stakeholder caucuses to merge two do-little efforts into one larger, more complicated and presumably (the multiplication of zero functioning as it does) do-little effort to kick the can down the road. Under the agreement, the WRIA-1 Watershed Management Project Joint Board will merge with the WRIA-1 Salmon Recovery Board, and get them communicating.
The Gristle has noted before the two fundamental failings of the WRIA-1 Planning Unit authorized under Washington law—namely, it is not a unit but a loose cohesion of competing caucuses, some with poor representation, some seemingly without representation at all; and it is not planning in any demonstrable sense, being both byzantine and balkanized. Judging from its output, the primary goal of the Planning Unit was to fiddle and dither while underhandedly permitting the buildout of the county and exhaustion of its resources. A 2005 water action plan stalled and collapsed in 2011. The most functional (and responsible) continuing partners on the Planning Unit are, of course, the governmental entities with budgets, staff, broad public goals and mandate as lead agencies.
WRIA-1 is the technical description for the Nooksack River drainage basin, and therefore this consolidated team of governments and agencies will take the lead in tackling issues related to groundwater and instream flows. Shorn of paralysis of the competing caucuses by subordinating their role, and energized by the addition of tribal and state fisheries interest, this merged group now has a slim chance of success. The tribes played a significant role in knocking the nonsense out of the former mash of competing interests by insisting on official government-to-government representation for the board.
“Certainly the goal is not to keep going without resolution,” Gary Stoyka, Natural Resources program manager reported to County Council. “The goal is to answer the questions of instream flow, the out-of-stream water needs, and get it resolved.”
“This still gives us the opportunity to work collaboratively moving forward. It gives the caucuses the ability to listen to constituents,” County Executive Jack Louws noted. “This has been a two-year process getting us to the point where we are right now, where we have all of the entities in support of making this major step, recognizing that the Planning Unit continues to have their statutory authority under state law. This is a workable solution for us to work collaboratively on projects, a logical step for moving forward.”