A person who buys a lot in White Salmon and wants to build immediately will not be able to.
That is the bottom line of the current situation the city finds itself in, because it has been using more water than its existing water rights allow. As a result, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) has clamped a water moratorium on the city until it can come up with another source of water to meet its needs.
White Salmon Public Works Department Director Wil Keyser said the city is working to resolve the water troubles with the state, but for now growth is essentially on hold.
"There is no question there will be no growth. There will be a moratorium on that," Keyser said at a recent meeting of the White Salmon City Council. "We've had a self-imposed moratorium. As of Dec. 1, we have not approved any new water hookups."
A moratorium on extending water mainlines had already been in place for several months, Keyser added.
"With this new moratorium, only those water services approved by the Department of Health can go forward. If there is a new proposal to develop a short plat or a subdivision, the DOH will not allow any more new services, and no more line extensions."
When it comes to rebuilding its water supply to meet future growth, state officials explained that the city of White Salmon has three primary options. None of them will be easy or inexpensive to execute.
Daniel Haller, who works in the water resources program for the Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE) in Yakima, said the available options all have drawbacks.
First, according to Haller, the city can try to obtain new water rights.
"This is the most time-consuming, and provides the least amount of certainty due to the difficult of getting new water in the Columbia River basin," Haller explained. "The Legislature has provided a mechanism where the WDOE could act immediately on the city's water right applications if White Salmon agrees to reimburse the cost of processing their water rights and other water right applicants ahead of them in line. This still is a long process, and currently would require consultation with state and federal fish agencies, tribes, counties, and cities in the watershed."
The city applied to WDOE for new water rights in 1997; the application is still under review.
Another option the city has is to buy a water right and transfer it to White Salmon.
"Securing an existing water right provides certainty," Haller explained.
Haller said the third option, creating a regional water system in cooperation with Bingen, could be the most viable one.
"This could provide the most immediate and certain results," Haller pointed out. "The city could work more closely with Bingen to develop a regional water system. The city currently supplies water to Bingen, and Bingen has significant inchoate water rights for growth that could be used by White Salmon, either on a short-term or a long-term basis."
Keyser said the approach the city is currently exploring is a transfer of water rights from elsewhere in the Columbia River basin.
"That is our preferred option," Keyser explained. "The Klickitat Public Utility District is in negotiations to transfer a very significant water right to place into a `water trust fund.' It's a very, very significant amount of water. We're still in the process of negotiations."
On Monday, Mayor Roger Holen said he felt like the city was "in limbo."
"We're treading water rather than getting water," he said.
Holen added that a meeting scheduled for Feb. 9 in Walla Walla was canceled because the White Salmon City Council voted to remove engineering and planning services from the city's 2006 budget in a cost-cutting move.
Still, Holen said he was hopeful a solution to the water rights issue will be developed soon.
"We're trying desperately to solve this problem as quickly as we can. I am very optimistic, but how quickly, I don't know," Holen said. "We're confident the problem will evaporate in six to nine months, pardon the pun."