Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Doing the Math on Exempt Wells

The Tea Party is all a-twitter about a letter that spokesman Greg Brown sent to the County Council.   

The letter, headed "Water Supply Issues or? Can you do the Math?", has the virtue of simplicity, which is always compelling to overworked elected representatives.  It has a narrative that has been compelling in the County over the past five years:  rural good, city bad.  

The only problem is that it's wrong, both mathematically and legally. 

There is plenty of room for a robust debate about the solutions to water quality and quantity issues.  But let's have that debate based on facts and law.

I just sent the following response to the County Council:

Dear County Council:

Greg Brown submitted a letter that purports to show that the County’s water planning should ignore water use from exempt wells because (1) only 10% of water used by those with septic tanks is not returned to groundwater, based on Ecology’s assumptions as set forth in the rule recently adopted for the Dungeness watershed, and (2) “there is generally no return flow” from city water use.

The most significant problem with Mr. Brown’s letter is that it does not accurately portray groundwater use as estimated in the Dungeness rule (attached).  This is what the rule really says:

WAC 173-518-085

4.(a) For parcels served by an individual or community septic system, ten percent of indoor water use is assumed consumptive.

(b) For parcels served by a sanitary sewer system, one hundred percent of indoor water use is assumed consumptive.

(c) Ninety percent of outdoor water use is assumed to be consumptive.

Water use in rural areas spikes in the summer, when farms and residences are using water and when streamflows are low.  Many surface waters in the County are only closed in the summer.  Thus, the 90% figure is the most important one, because most residential water use falls into that category.

The Dungeness estimates are similar to the County's own estimate of water consumption, which we provided to the County in our letter of January 23, 2014.  The Lower Nooksack Water budget estimates that 85% of outdoor use and 15% of indoor use is consumptive (not returned to groundwater). Please refer to the Lower Nooksack Water Budget (2012) at 259. The Lower Nooksack Water Budget can be found at

Mr. Brown's letter further failed to explain that the Dungeness rule requires all water use (including groundwater use) to be metered and mitigated.  Ecology clearly did not base its rule on Mr. Brown’s theory that groundwater use can be ignored – undoubtedly because this theory violates state water law.

Mr. Brown’s assertion that there is "no" return flow from urban water users is also incorrect.  Outdoor use from city users will have the same return flow as from rural users.  Of course, that percentage is low – but it is also low for rural landowners.

Ultimately, of course, the effort to start a "rural vs. urban" water war is a red herring.  The County's obligation to plan for water quality and quantity is based on its Growth Management Act obligation to adopt an adequate rural element.  If Mr. Brown believes that the City of Bellingham, for example, is wasting water or does not have an adequate water right, he should address the City of Bellingham.  The County still needs to adopt a GMA-compliant rural element, regardless.

Thank you for considering our comments.


  1. Jean,
    Thank you for going through the chore of repeating the key point you had already made at your Western lecture, during Q&A from.... Mr. Brown!

    The fact that the "10% consumptive" canard is being repeated by Mr. Brown suggests a doubling-down on propaganda instead of demonstrable facts. Of course, I realize that my credibility is low, because I am just an urban dweller.

    Abe Jacobson

  2. Who cares how much of a withdrawal is consumptive. Where instream flows are not met; where any withdrawal would impact instream flows, the court (I believe it was in Postema) prohibited withdrawal. The court's statement was pretty clear ... not a single drop!

    1. Greg, yes, it was Postema, and what you say would be true in a place where the rule of law applied. But the Tea Party doesn't live in that place, and they've successfully ensured that Whatcom County is not such a place.