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General Information

Effective November 1, 2016

In response to a Washington State Supreme Court Decision (Whatcom County v. Hirst), Pierce County Planning and Land Services has established a department policy for building permits and subdivision applications using new permit-exempt wells as their required potable water source.

In general, starting on November 1, 2016, PALS shall determine if a building permits or subdivision has legal water based on the findings of a required hydrogeologic study. PALS shall issue a building permit or subdivision if it is demonstrated that the new permit-exempt well:
  • Will not impact or impair a senior water rights holder, and
  • Will not impact or impair established instream flows and closures as identified by the State.

To review the full department policy click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

General

Who does this change affect?
If I already have a permit-exempt well how does this affect me?
Why is Pierce County making this change?
Why is this effective November 1?

Permit-Exempt Wells and Water Rights
What is a permit-exempt well?
What are senior water rights and minimum instream flow rules?

Hydrogeologic Study
What is a hydrogeologic study and why do I need one?
How do I get a hydrogeologic study?
How much does a hydrogeologic study cost?
Does getting a hydrogeologic study guarantee that my application will be approved?


General

Who does this change affect?
Anyone applying for a building permit or subdivision and will be using a new permit-exempt well within all all areas of the County except for portions of the Key and Gig Harbor Peninsulas and islands. See the department policy for specific details.


If I already have an approved permit-exempt well how does this affect me?
It does not affect you.


Why is Pierce County making this change?
The policy is in response to an October 2016 Washington State Supreme Court Decision (Whatcom County v. Hirst) which ruled that Counties must make a determination of legal and factual water availability before granting building permits. Prior to the Decision, Pierce County relied upon the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department's requirements for new permit-exempt well construction. It is clear in the Court decision that additional steps must be taken by the County to ensure that senior water rights and minimum instream flow rules are not impacted or impaired by new permit-exempt wells.


Why is this effective November 1?
On November 1, 2016 the Washington State Supreme Court issued a mandate making it official law for the entire State. Pierce County is currently in the process of identifying submitted applications which would be affected by this policy.


Permit-Exempt Wells and Water Rights

What is a permit-exempt well?
Permit-exempt wells are authorized through RCW 90.44.050. This state law allows use of groundwater for specific purposes without the need to obtain a water rights permit. Although these permit-exempt uses don’t require a water right permit, you are still subject to state water law.

A common use is a single home or group of homes that use no more than 5,000 gallons of water per day. Other uses include:
  • Providing water for livestock (no gallon per day limit)
  • Watering a non-commercial lawn or garden one-half acre in size or less (no gallon per day limit, however limited to reasonable use)
  • Providing water for industrial purposes, including irrigation (limited to 5,000 gallons per day but no acre limit)


What are senior water rights and minimum instream flow rules?
Senior Water Rights:
A water right is the authorization to divert or withdraw some portion of waters of the state for a beneficial purpose, subject to the specific terms and conditions of a water right permit, certificate, or claim. The date of a water right that establishes its seniority relative to other water rights. If a water right was established prior to the water codes, the priority date is the date the water was first put to use. If a water right was acquired through the permitting process, the priority date is the date the application for a water right was filed with Ecology. Between two water rights from a single source, a senior water right is a right that has the earlier priority date.

Instream Flow Rules:
An instream flow rule is a regulation adopted in the Washington Administrative Code to protect rivers, streams and other water bodies. The legislature directed us through state law to protect and preserve instream resources. One of the ways we fulfill this mandate is to set instream flows in rule.
  • Instream flows are the stream flow levels that will protect and preserve instream resources and values. Once established in a rule, an instream flow is a water right for the stream and the resources that depend on it. It has a priority date like any other water right. Currently, there are 26 instream flow rules in our state.
  • Instream flow rules also establish closures, meaning we determined that water is not available from certain waterbodies. Closures can be year-round or seasonal.
  • Instream flow rules do not affect existing (senior) water rights, rather, they protect the river from future withdrawals. Setting instream flows does not put water in streams.


Sources:
Landowner's Guide to Washington Water Rights, Washington Rivers Conservancy, 2009
Understanding the Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise et. al. decision, WA Dept. of Ecology, 2016



Hydrogeologic Study

What is a hydrogeologic study and why do I need one?
It shows how groundwater flows and shows how taking water using a new well would affect the flow of water, surrounding wells, and water features. You need one to show if a new permit-exempt well would impact or impair senior water rights and instream flow rules.


How do I get a hydrogeologic study?
Contact a licensed hydrogeologist.


How much does a hydrogeologic study cost?
The cost of a study depends upon your location and whether or not any other hydrogeologic studies have been completed in the area. It may be anywhere from $5,000 or more dependent upon the situation. It is not possible to provide an exact amount, a licensed hydrogeologist would be needed to provide a quote.


Does getting a hydrogeologic study guarantee that my application will be approved?
No, having the study done does not guarantee anything. In order to obtain a building permit or approve a subdivision, the hydrogeologic study must prove that using a new permit-exempt well:
  • Will not impact or impair a senior water rights holder, and
  • Will not impact or impair established instream flows and closures as identified by the State.


Map/Other Resources

General


Maps

Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) Information

Staff Contact

Michael Jimenez
Senior Planner

253-798-7181

Cory Ragan
Associate Planner

253-798-2590