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Rural Demand for Municipal Water Or How a Drought Emergency Can Make You Popular

Rural Demand for Municipal Water Or How a Drought Emergency Can Make You Popular

The remarkably dry winter of 2014-15 has set off alarms. The Governor has declared a state-wide drought emergency. Talk of possible water use restrictions has become common. Many domestic water providers are anxious – and so are some property owners.

This Planning Advisor post discusses one aspect of our current water woes – municipal water service requests for homes outside of cities and towns.

Consider a property owner who wants to build a home in the country (read: GMA rural lands). One of their first tasks is to secure domestic water – without a reliable water supply, they can’t build. Groundwater storage depends on local geology and hydrology. Some aquifers survive droughts better than others. Our drier winter could make it more difficult to tap into a water source that depends heavily on seasonal recharge. In this case, a property owner may start looking for a more reliable water source. Even the fear of more dry winters in the future could make a property owner search for a more reliable water source. And the more reliable water source might be the nearest city.

What do you do when a property owner wants municipal water, but they don’t live in the city or even in the city’s urban growth area?

Can You Provide Domestic Water Outside the Urban Growth Area?

For those jurisdictions planning under the Growth Management Act (“GMA”), the legislature has provided some guidance. There’s no question that domestic water service can be provided within cities and Urban Growth Areas (“UGAs”). But what about providing water service beyond the UGA boundary?  

Under the GMA, domestic water service, unlike sewer service, is both an urban and a rural governmental service. (RCW 36.70A.030(17),(18)) The difference is that rural areas presumably have less dense zoning and development than in urban areas, so domestic water service in rural areas supports less intensive development. It is not extraordinary for cities to provide domestic water service beyond their UGA boundaries to areas with rural densities.

But just because you’re allowed to provide water service to rural areas doesn’t mean you have to. It also has to make sense – both in terms of the ability to provide water and the ability to pay for any necessary system improvements.

Review Your Water System Plan

The obvious starting point is to determine if you have more water than you need to serve your city and UGA now and in the future. Although you may have excess water rights in normal water years, do you have excess water rights in years of low water – in other words, do you have enough senior water rights that are not likely to be impacted in low water years. Your water system plan should describe your city’s sources of water.

Another consideration is your existing infrastructure. Your water system plan will also show the existing water distribution system – i.e., where the pipes are. Existing pipes running near the requested service location will make it easier to provide service.  Future planned system improvements are also a factor. Perhaps there are dead-end water mains that can benefit from new water users to extend the water main and complete a loop, thus minimizing the dead-end pipe risk of low water flow rates and possible diminished water quality. A property owner willing to pay for a water extension could help achieve water system plan objectives.

What Does Your Comprehensive Plan Say?

Assuming your city has enough water, the decision to provide water service beyond a city’s UGA is ultimately a policy decision. Review your comprehensive plan to see how (or if) existing policies address extension of domestic water service into rural areas. Given the GMA’s requirements, it’s common for comprehensive plan policies to limit extensions to those situations where there is a public health or environmental exigency and where such extensions would not result in urban development. (RCW 36.70A.110) Your plan may also express a willingness to provide water service where the rural landowner is facing a hardship, such as not being able to find water after multiple attempts to dig a well. It is less common for a comprehensive plan to simply prohibit the extension of water service to rural areas.

If the comprehensive plan is silent on this issue, or the existing language does not reflect new policy direction, the comprehensive plan may need to be amended. Because the county-wide planning policies provide the framework for coordination and consistency of comprehensive plans within your county, you’ll want to review the county-wide planning policies before undertaking a comprehensive plan amendment that extends the city’s reach beyond its UGA boundaries. (RCW 36.70A.210 and RCW 36.70A.100) Adopting comprehensive plan policies at odds with county-wide planning policies is problematic and amending county-wide planning policies requires support from the county, as well as other cities within the county.

What Does Your Municipal Code Say?

Look to your municipal code for existing rules for if and when water service can be provided to the rural area.  While some codes include very general language with little specifics to guide decision making, other codes include a detailed review process with specific conditions for extending water service. (Hint – the more detailed the code is, the more predictable but less flexible the process will be.)

Helpful code language describes the circumstances under which water service can be extended, identifies who pays for the extension, and identifies who makes the final decision. Typical conditions for approval include a demonstrated failure of well-drilling efforts to find potable water or site limitations that prevent the installation of a well.  It may also be prudent for the code to require findings that the provision of water service won’t negatively impact the city’s ability to provide water to its allocated future urban population (e.g., the city has sufficient water rights, the water system capacity can handle the new service, etc.). Findings should also identify any benefits (e.g., eliminating dead-end water mains, another paying water customer, etc.) and any risks to the city of providing water service.

Some codes give decision-making authority to the community development or public works director. Others leave the decision to the elected officials. On a practical note, the more the review and approval process is vetted in detail before adoption, the more likely a specific application can be fairly evaluated at the administrative level, rather than the elected-official level.

If the municipal code is silent or otherwise lacking in how it addresses this issue, consider adding amendments to your work plan sooner rather than later.

Who Else Might Be Involved?

The decision to extend water service may involve other entities. At the policy level, amendments to comprehensive plans or development codes can be subject to review by the Growth Management Hearings Board for compliance with the GMA. Also, extending water service beyond city limits may be subject to review by the local boundary review board, especially if there are other possible water service providers for the target area. (RCW 35.92.027)

Final Thoughts

If your jurisdiction hasn’t yet had to consider providing water outside its UGA boundaries, you may have to consider it soon. In the interest of avoiding your best “deer in the headlights” impression in front of a property owner or your city council, know what your existing plans and regulations say about rural water service – and have an idea what changes, if any, might be needed.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Andy Lane

Andy Lane writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Andy Lane focuses on land use and environmental law with Cairncross & Hempelmann. He advises municipalities, landowners, and developers regarding long-range planning issues, permitting, water rights, and compliance with environmental laws. Andy takes a practical approach to the practice of law, recognizing that land use disputes can frequently be resolved by up-front planning and creative thinking rather than prolonged litigation. In addition to helping private and municipal clients resolve legal disputes, Andy also partners with planners and engineers to provide consulting services to municipalities in land use and Growth Management Act ("GMA") matters.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.