Permit Exempt Wells in Unincorporated Snohomish County

Last year, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington changed decades of land use planning and development as it relates to the drilling of wells for household water. All 39 counties and many municipalities were impacted across the state. Since every county in the state is different, there have necessarily been different responses. We are providing as much information to the public as possible, while we work with state and local leaders to devise a solution to the challenges laid out in the Hirst Decision.

 Supreme Court's  "Hirst Decision" and Impact on Snohomish County Residents

On October 6, 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Whatcom County v. Hirst, Futurewise, et al. (commonly known as the Hirst Decision).  As outlined in that decision, it must be demonstrated that groundwater withdrawal will not impair a senior water right, including instream flows which are considered a senior water right. In a watershed basin that has been closed or partially closed to groundwater withdrawals by the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), development permit applications that propose to use a domestic permit-exempt well as the source of water supply may be subject to this ruling.

How is Snohomish County Responding to the Hirst Decision?

Snohomish County government is assessing the impacts of this case on building permits, subdivisions, and other development permits that utilize permit-exempt wells. In the interim, PDS will continue to receive building permit applications, subdivision applications, and other development permit applications. The property owner and/or applicant is responsible for establishing and maintaining a legal water source. Ecology's Notice of Intent (NOI) to Drill a Well is not a permit, certificate, or application for a water right. Your Notice of Intent does not represent approval or permission to use water from a well. 

The Snohomish Health District will likewise continue to accept and review well applications, as is within their authority, only for setback, water quality, and flow. 

Snohomish County has developed the following documents to assist property owners affected by the recent Hirst Decision. The first document is an assistance bulletin that provides information on permit-exempt wells, and the second document is a notification to accompany affected building permits advising the applicant that an issuance of a building permit is not an assurance or guarantee of the availability of water.

Contact Us

Phone: 425-388-3311
Fax: 425-388-3872

Water Restricted Watershed Basins (click on map for larger image)


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What's an instream flow rule?
  2. Who's affected by the Hirst Decision?
  3. What is a "permit exempt well"
  4. What's a senior water right?
Instream flow rules

An instream flow rule is a regulation adopted by the Washington State Legislature in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) to protect rivers, streams and other water bodies. The legislature directed the Washington State Department of Ecology through state law to protect and preserve instream resources. One of the ways Ecology fulfills this mandate is to set instream flows in rules specific to individual basins. Instream flows adopted as rules are considered water rights and have the date of rule adoption as their priority date. This means that any water right established after the date of the instream flow rule within the applicable watershed (Water Resource Inventory Area) would be junior to the instream flow rule and could be impaired.  Moreover, certain instream flow rules contain closures for specific basins or subbasins, meaning that no new water appropriations are allowed for that basins or subbasins - please review the instream flow rules for Snohomish County for specific details or contact Ecology's Northwest Region:
Ecology's Northwest Region
Island, King, Kitsap, San Juan
Skagit and Snohomish counties
Tom Buroker

Instream flow rules for the Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs) in Snohomish County:

Lower Skagit-Samish (WRIA 3) & Upper Skagit (WRIA 4) - 
Stillaguamish (WRIA 5) - 
Snohomish (WRIA 7) - 
Cedar-Sammamish (WRIA 8) - 
Learn more about instream flows by visiting Ecology's web page.

What is an instream flow?

According to Ecology, an instream flow is:
A water right for the stream and the resources that depend on it. It has a priority date like any other water right.  Instream flows are the stream flow levels that will protect and preserve instream resources and values.
The term “instream flow” identifies a specific stream flow level (measured in cubic feet per second, cfs) at a specific location on a given stream. The weather causes natural flow variations throughout the year so an instream flow is a range (a “regime”), usually changing month-to-month, instead of a single number.
Instream flows do not affect existing (senior) water rights, rather, they protect the river from future withdrawals.
Setting instream flows does not put water in streams. 
In state law, the terms “base flow” and “minimum instream flow” have the same meaning as “instream flow.”

More information from Ecology and Other Sources

Map of Instream Flow Rules (click image)

instream flow counties

Permit Exempt Groundwater

permit exempt well

Understanding the Hirst Decision (click image)

Understanding Hirst Decision

Exempt from Water Right Permit

Ecology Exempt Well

Well information

well info

Washington Water Rights

Landowners Guide

Snohomish Health District

snohomish health district

Building Permits and Wells

Building permits and Wells