PROSSER -- Water on the north side of Red Mountain appears to be drying up, drop by drop.
Benton County officials need to be thinking about the possibility for dry days ahead on land just south of West Richland, Washington Department of Ecology officials warned Tuesday at the commissioners' meeting in Prosser.
It could lead to restrictions on the sizes of lawns or types of landscaping, said officials who described a potentially dry future for the area.
The state officials said there have been increasing complaints of domestic wells going temporarily dry, wells needing to be up to 400 feet deep and the likelihood of more wells being drilled as parcels get smaller.
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With 265 domestic wells already drilled on the 4.3-square-mile site, and enough subdivided lots to bring another 128 wells, the water table is sure to drop even farther, said Anna Hoselton, a water resources hydrologist with the state.
Tom Tebb, regional director of Ecology's Office of Columbia River, said commissioners should think about how to meet the crisis.
"We think there's a problem, and we ought to be thinking and planning for it," Tebb told commissioners.
The basic issue is whether expected growth south of West Richland can depend on an already stressed ground water system, he said.
Hoselton noted that the city of West Richland issued a water shortage response plan a year ago and is monitoring wells to see if the situation worsens.
"The area is ripe for expansion of a public water system into the area. The landowners can't sustain what they have now," Hoselton said.
Hoselton asked commissioners to consider strategies through permitting conditions that would limit future building that requires a ground water source.
That could mean limiting lawn sizes or requiring xeriscaping.
But Commissioner Leo Bowman, whose district includes West Richland, said the county doesn't and shouldn't have responsibility to regulate water.
"I don't have authority to stop someone from developing because there isn't enough water. (We require) only that water is available," he said.
Commissioner Jim Beaver agreed. "I don't think I'm going to be a water cop," he said.
Hoselton said they also need to be concerned about health issues related to deeper water.
Hydrologic analysis on the north side of Red Mountain shows that deeper supplies mean hotter water, with higher than desirable amounts of chlorides, methane gas, fluorides and hydrogen sulfide, she said.
"These geologic conditions are well documented and will persist," Hoselton said, quoting results of a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory analysis of the site.
Ecology officials say extending city water service from West Richland to the waterless area would work.
But that can't happen until the land becomes part of West Richland's urban growth area, Bowman noted.
With only an average of seven inches of precipitation each year, and most of that flowing away because of the sloping terrain, natural regeneration of ground water into the aquifer is unlikely, Hoselton said.
And beds of basalt and clay virtually block any chance of "vertical recharge," she added.
"Our job is to come and share information. It looks like you might have a problem coming, so how do you want to manage it?" Tebb said.
"This was a shot across the bow that we may have to start doing things we haven't done in the past," Bowman said.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org