County to work with District 19 in effort to determine water availability

The King County Council approved Water District 19's comprehensive plan last month, but with a caveat: Because of its 14-year moratorium on new water shares, the agency needs to work with the county to explore ways to end the water shortage.

The conditional approval, which took place at the council's Dec. 15 meeting, stems from the fact that District 19 is considered "deficient" — or unable to meet demand within its service area, according to the four-page ordinance. The council's legislation requires the county and the water district to begin a two-year planning process in an effort "remedy the deficiency," the ordinance adds.

Steve Hirschey, a regional water policy analyst who works for the county's Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said state and county statutes require the county to begin such a planning process. Such a process may determine that mandated conservation measures are in order, that additional water can be had through drilling, that a desalination plant should be constructed or that the moratorium is indeed the right response to District 19's current situation, he added.

"If a deficiency is identified, we're obligated to develop a joint-planning process to figure out what to do about it," he said. "We require a functional plan ... that demonstrates the capacity to meet the needs. This demonstrates the capacity to not meet the needs."

"The bottom line," he added, "is for us to figure out if the moratorium is still appropriate or if there is anything the county should be doing about it."

Steve Haworth, who chairs District 19's three-member commission, said he and his colleagues welcome the county's involvement. "It doesn't surprise me. In fact it pleases me to work with the county," he said.

What's more, he said, he believes District 19 is undertaking several efforts that will free up some water shares — including ongoing conservation efforts and bringing the new Beall well online.

But he said there's no reason to assume the planning process will lead to an end to the moratorium, which District 19 first imposed in February 1996. Currently, around 100 individuals or entities are on a waiting list for water hook-ups in District 19's service area, which includes Vashon town.

"Certainly in my mind, (the joint-planning process) doesn't assume we'll come out of moratorium," Haworth said. "It's not something we can wave a magic wand and change."

Bob Powell, another commissioner, said he, too, is hopeful that stronger conservation efforts will help to ease the water shortage in District 19's service area. The issue, he added, is an economic one: Water can be obtained, but it could cost quite a bit to drill the wells and build the infrastructure.

"The commissioners have gotten enough feedback about how expensive water is (in District 19) that the district has not seriously considered spending millions of dollars on new infrastructure," Powell said. "The county is going to force us to re-examine that."

Hirschey said the county may "accept the deficiency if nothing can be done about it."

But according to county policy, he added, water availability should not be a surrogate for imposing growth limits on a community; rather, he added, land-use policy should dictate how much growth is allowed.

The county has approved a number of land plats within District 19's service area over the years, he noted.

"People think they're going to get water down the road. If that's not going to happen, we need to let them know," he said.

District 19's board of commissioners will hold a special meeting to discuss its 2010 strategic planning efforts. The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at the district's offices at 17630 100th Ave. S.W.

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