WALLA WALLA — A years-long debate over Walla Walla County’s rules to protect drinking water has crossed a finish line.
The Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board has ruled the county’s most recent revisions of its Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas regulations pass muster with the state Growth Management Act.
What are critical areas?
Required by the state Growth Management Act, all counties and cities who have opted to plan under the act are required to protect lands defined as “critical areas” within their boundaries.
There are five critical areas. They are geologically hazardous areas, frequently-flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas.
In regards to agricultural activities on lands designated as critical areas, Walla Walla County commissioners year voted in 2012 to opt into the Voluntary Stewardship Program. Created by the state Legislature in 2011, the program is intended to allow counties to draw up plans that balance the needs of farmers and ranchers with protection of critical areas. The program is under the direction of the Washington State Conservation Commission.
“The board finds ... that Walla Walla County has achieved compliance with the Growth Management Act as to the GMA’s requirements to designate and protect areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water,” the board stated in an order of compliance issued earlier this week.
The regulations are part of an update of Critical Areas Ordinances adopted by the county in 2009. After being adopted, two groups challenged the aquifer recharge regulations alleging the county had failed to comply with state laws.
The aquifer protection issue was the only portion of the critical areas ordinances objected to by the groups, Citizens for Good Governance and Futurewise,
In May 2010, the three-member hearings board ruled that the county had failed to use “best available science” to determine which parts of the hundreds of square miles of gravel aquifer in Walla Walla County should be designated as “Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas” for potable water wells.
The county redrew the ordinances and in January 2012 adopted the new rules. However CGG and Futurewise again challenged the regulations, maintaining they were still inadequate.
Four months later the hearings board issued a split decision on the nine legal arguments raised by CGG and Futurewise. In six instances, it held that CGG and Futurewise failed to prove “clearly erroneous action” by the county regarding compliance issues involving critical aquifer ordinances.
But the hearings board agreed the groups did make their case for three issues and remanded those to the county to be reworked.
The first issue was to include “best available science regarding horizontal permeability” of the soils underlying Walla Walla Regional Airport “and determine whether or not the aquifer contamination risk at the airport satisfies the GMA’s standard of being a vulnerable aquifer.”
The second was to determine whether or not the shallow gravel aquifer is vulnerable to contamination through certain recharge areas and, if so, designate or classify those zones according to whether or not the shallow gravel aquifer is vulnerable to contamination from the identified areas.
The third was to either amend the regulations as to aquifer contamination threats from pre-existing uses “to reflect the inclusion of best available science or provide a reasoned justification for departure from the best available science.”
After further work on the aquifer regulations, county commissioners held a hearing on January 29 to take comments on the new rules. The hearing was then continued until Feb. 29 to allow the county’s consultant, Bill Stalzer, time to review any comments and report back.
Commissioners adopted the reworked regulations in February, but the rules still faced a final hearing before the growth board, which held a hearing on April 19.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jesse Nolte, who acts as legal counsel for commissioners, said the board’s decision was gratifying.
“We are pleased with the decision and I believe it is a reflection of good, thorough work by county consultant Bill Stalzer and sub-consultant Golder Associates, Inc.,” Nolte said.
Through the years
The critical aquifer recharge area rules decision caps a debate stretching back more than five years. The timeline:
January 2008 — County begins process to update its Critical Areas Ordinance.
April 2008-December 2008 — Fourteen meetings and workshops are held over nine months to discuss the updating process.
Aug. 31, 2009 — Walla Walla County commissioners adopt the new Critical Areas Ordinance. Citizens for Good Governance files petition with Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board for review. Futurewise also intervenes in the case.
May 2010 — The hearings board orders county to redraw its Critical Area Regulations in regard to protection Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas.
May 2010-January 2012 — County redraws ordinances dealing with Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas and adopts new rules in January. Citizens for Good Governance and Futurewise maintain the ordinances are still not adequate.
Feb. 23, 2012 — Both sides argue their cases before the growth management board during a hearing in Walla Walla.
April 2012 — Hearings board rules CGG and Futurewise failed to prove “clearly erroneous action” by the county on six of their nine legal arguments. The board, however, found that the groups did make their case on three issues. The matters were remanded to the county to be reworked.
January-February 2013 — County commissioners hold public hearing on Jan. 29 to take testimony on the new rules. Hearing is continued until Feb. 19.
Feb. 25 — Commissioners adopt ordinance to change critical aquifer regulations “to ensure compliance with Growth Management Act and adopting Best Available Science.”
April 19 — Growth management board holds hearing on Walla Walla County’s revised Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas regulations.
Monday — Board issues finding that county critical aquifer regulations are in compliance with Growth Management Act.