State board issues split decision on county water rules

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WALLA WALLA -- A state board has issued a split decision on a challenge to regulations intended to protect Walla Walla County's drinking water supplies.

The Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board ruled two citizens' groups failed to prove "clearly erroneous action" by the county regarding compliance issues involving ordinances for Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas.

However, the board found the two groups, Citizens for Good Governance and Futurewise, did make their case for three issues. The matters were remanded to the county to be reworked to bring them into compliance.

According to the ruling, the out-of-compliance issues related to "horizontal permeability, Zone 2 aquifer recharge areas and pre-existing non-conforming uses."

The board's ruling was the latest development in the county's efforts to update its Critical Areas Ordinances, which began in January 2008 and was capped in August 2009 with adoption of new Critical Areas Ordinances.

Along with aquifer recharge areas, the ordinances also cover fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, wetlands, geologically hazardous areas and frequently-flooded areas.

Following adoption of the ordinances, Futurewise and Citizens for Good petitioned the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board for a review of the portion of the county ordinance dealing with critical aquifer protection. The board ruled in May 2010 the county had failed to use "best available science" to determine which parts of the 190 square miles of gravel aquifer in the county should be designated as "critical aquifer recharge areas."

The county adopted new rules for critical aquifers in January, but the groups maintained the ordinances were still not adequate.

Both sides argued their cases before the growth management board at a Feb. 23 hearing in Walla Walla. The county was joined by the Port of Walla Walla, which was defending the new regulations as they pertain to the Walla Walla Regional Airport properties managed by the Port.

Walla Walla County Commissioner Greg Tompkins said today commissioners had no comment at this time about the ruling. "We've seen it, but really haven't had a chance to review it in depth," he said.

In addition, Jesse Nolte, the deputy prosecuting attorney who acts as the commissioners' legal counsel, is out of town and they have not had a chance to review the findings with him, Tompkins said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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