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Skagit County still struggles as state moves forward on water rights fix

The “Hirst fix” means counties around the state can give the go-ahead to rural development once again - but that is not the case in Skagit County. For the time being, new water wells still can't be drilled and that is proving to be devastating for many landowners. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. – The “Hirst fix” means counties around the state can give the go-ahead to rural development once again - but that is not the case in Skagit County.

For the time being, new water wells still can't be drilled and that is proving to be devastating for many landowners.

“They basically didn't give you any compensation. They just took your right to use your property away, and that's the part that's wrong," said Richard Fox, who owns land in Sedro-Woolley.

Fox wants to build a small retirement home on his acreage and turn over his farm house to his daughter. However, he can't get the plan approved because of the moratorium on new water wells.

It’s been that way since the Swinomish tribe won a court case to protect fish habitat.

Without water rights, Fox and his neighbors have seen their property values tank. For many, it's their life savings.

Fox hoped state lawmakers could help Skagit County while they worked out the details of the Hirst fix - which cleared the way for rural property owners to dig new wells for homes. In the end, Skagit County ended up being excluded.

“It's discrimination, really," Fox said. “What do you do with land that is designated to build on that you can't build on?"

State lawmakers agreed to the exclusion in large part because of the court ruling from 2013 that went in favor of the Swinomish tribe. Legislation was introduced in this current session to reinstate a 1996 memorandum of agreement that would allow some permit-exempt wells to go forward, but it failed.

Prospects are bleak to get any kind of solution this year.

Meantime, other counties are moving forward to take advantage of the "Hirst fix." New permit fee and water-use limits are being introduced. Counties are requiring a $500 fee for the new permit-exempt wells. A limit of 5,000 gallons per day will be imposed on those wells when calculating the total withdrawl from all hook-ups.

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