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Chelan County Well Drilling Myths: Hirst Decision Explained

Posted by Geordie Romer on January 7, 2018

The Washington State legislature passed SB 6091 which fixes the state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. Governor Jay Inslee signed the Hirst fix legislation January 19, 2018.  We will link to a blog post with new information – this is good news.
In the past year, we have heard a ton of Chelan County well drilling myths in the wake of the Hirst decision, many of them unfortunately propagated by the Wenatchee World.
“The Hirst decision changed the way counties decide to approve or deny water wells and, therefore, whether to grant residential building permits. It blocks landowners from digging new wells unless they can prove the wells won’t threaten stream levels needed for fish.”
“Supreme Court’s Hirst decision that blocked the digging of new rural water wells.”
The Hirst decision does not ban or prohibit drilling new wells in Leavenworth, Chelan County or anywhere in Washington state.
In 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court changed how counties issue building permits for properties that use wells as a water source. The case was Whatcom County vs Hirst, Futurewise, et al. and is commonly known now as the Hirst Decision.

The ruling assigns the responsibility for deciding water availability to counties, who previously had relied on the state Department of Ecology for such a determination.  Counties must decide if there is enough water (legally and physically) before issuing a building permit to a landowner using well water.
According to the Department of Ecology “While the case directly relates to Whatcom County, it appears to set legal precedent that applies to other counties where there are instream flow rules that were not intended to regulate permit-exempt water uses. It is unclear how the decision affects areas of the state where there are no instream flow rules.”
Somehow, this decision keeps being misinterpreted, especially by journalists or maybe heavy handed copy editors.
While there is a ton of uncertainty on this issue, what is clear is that your ability to drill a well has not changed.
According to the Department of Ecology “There are no restrictions on a property owner’s ability to drill a well. However, drilling a new well does not guarantee legal access to water.”
I already have a well drilled on my property, so I’m all set right?
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case either.
Again, from the DOE  “Even those who already have a well on their property may not be able to build a home using that well.”
What is happening in Chelan County around Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee?
It appears as though Chelan County is taking the “wait and see” approach. In 2016, Mike Kaputa, Chelan County’s Directory of Natural Resources said “There’s a lot of uncertainty and confusion around the Hirst case. We’re still digesting this.”
According to a website created by the homebuilding industry,, it looks like many counties have adopted the wait and see plan, though building permits in other counties are now harder to receive. A chart comparing counties can be found on their website.
As of January 2018, permits are still being issued by Chelan County to build homes with water provided by wells and there are no new restrictions on drilling wells from the state of Washington.




    If you’re planning to buy a home in this area, the best place to start is with the Leavenworth Home Buyer’s Guide.

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