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Lack of water rights to prevent North Bend's growth

NORTH BEND _ The North Bend City Council recently passed an

ordinance extending the long-running building moratorium, which

prevents construction of most buildings and subdivisions for another six months.

The moratorium restricts the issuance of any new building permits,

especially for subdivisions and businesses that require major water

use, such as restaurants. Some remodel projects are also affected by the

ordinance.

A few developments are being allowed to go forward because

they were approved before the moratorium started.

"Right now we don't even have the resources to grow within our

urban growth area," said Phil Messina, North Bend city administrator, at the

Nov. 14 council meeting.

He explained that the situation is difficult for everyone — for

property owners who want to develop their land, for business owners who

want to expand, and for the city, because of the lost tax revenue new

construction would bring and the overall growth and health of North Bend.

Messina added that it's ironic how in an area that gets more than 80

inches of rain each year, and has rivers that occasionally overflow, there is a

shortage of water.

But the situation is all about water rights, which the state decided

decades ago. The building restrictions are a necessity for the city because it

has hit the water-rights limit, although the city's current source at the base

of Mount Si is by no means tapped out.

The moratorium began in April 1999 when it was discovered that

for years the city had been using the wrong calculations to determine

how much water was allocated from the 1965 state issuance of water rights.

The city used more than 53,000 gallons over its limit in 1997

alone, and officials speculate the overuse began in the mid-1980s.

In addition, it was apparent additional water rights would not

be granted anytime soon by the state Department of Ecology (DOE), and

that there would not be enough water for existing homes and businesses if

the city did not take action and temporarily stop development.

Although several solutions have been pursued by the city council

since then, all were met with legal or situational roadblocks. A plan to

purchase water from the city of Snoqualmie last year fell through when DOE

rejected the idea, and it might take decades for North Bend to receive additional

water rights from DOE because the department has experienced

funding cuts.

"We're caught in this bureaucratic no-man's land," Messina said.

The latest proposal to gain enough water for the city's growth was

revealed in May and involves purchasing water from Seattle reserves at

the Cedar River Watershed, which would flow to North Bend via the Sallal

Water District's old pipeline. This would require that a treatment plant be

built near Rattlesnake Lake.

However, this option has been postponed because the city of

Seattle is currently in a lawsuit with the Muckleshoot tribe over water rights.

Messina said that when the lawsuit concludes, talks can resume

with Seattle officials to gain the much-needed water.

If the proposal were approved and enacted, it could take at least

18 months for the system's construction to be complete, Messina had

explained in an earlier interview.

Until the time when additional water is granted, Messina said he

and other North Bend officials are working on solutions.

In September, he testified in front of the state's House Committee

on Agriculture and Ecology to shed light on North Bend's problems with

obtaining water and the technicalities around water rights that city

officials have run into.

In addition, Messina explained that local lawmakers are working on

the issue and legislators will be delving into water issues during the next

session in Olympia. He's had meetings with Rep. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple

Valley, and Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, about the situation

and plans to meet soon with newly elected Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City.

And North Bend is not alone in its predicament. Messina said

many Washington cities and towns are undergoing the same water hassles.

"It is a war. There's a battle out there for water," he said. "Farmers

and irrigators are looking for water, cities are looking for water and the tribes

are looking for healthy rivers and fish. It's a statewide problem with a

whole bunch of people caught up in it."

He listed the entire east side of Lake Washington, Walla Walla,

the Tri-Cities and the Snake and Columbia rivers' irrigation areas as also

experiencing difficulty with water rights and sources.

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