HERMISTON - While denying that a de facto moratorium on land development in the west end of Umatilla County exists, the county's planning director said Thursday future development will need to be limited by available water.

All land-use permits, except zoning, will be contingent on whether or not wells drilled on the land will impact nearby water sources, Tamra Mabbott told the county's groundwater task force this week in a meeting attended by two county commissioners.

"Our attorney told us it would be an irrevocable error not to do so," Mabbott said.

That puts the county - and those applying for such permits - in a tough position, she admitted.

Last fall the county proposed a moratorium on development until it could quantify how severe the water shortage in the area is and how the water can be better rationed. But an outpouring of community protest forced it from the proposal, leaving development issues status quo until a community task force provided a better solution.

Since then, with the publicity of the area's depleting water table, land-use permits brought before the Umatilla County Planning Commission have been challenged, forcing the county to consider water availability in its approval of the permits. Eventually, the county found it couldn't legally ignore the fact that almost all the land in the west-end is under critical groundwater status - meaning any further pumping of groundwater in that area will have an impact on water sources.

And because the Oregon Water Resources Department does not regulate most domestic wells (the type drilled for residential use), the county must regulate how many go in, something it has not historically addressed.

"We're really at a pivotal time," Mabbott said.

Further land development in the west-end of the county will not be guaranteed until rules can be established for how developers might mitigate for water use. While developers can now offer to do so, how to go about it is still an inexact science and will be subject to the opinions of the county's Planning Commission members.

"It's left the county staff to utilize existing codes and look at projects on a case by case basis while we wait for the recommendation of the task force," Mabbott said.

The groundwater task force is charged with developing a plan for water use through the year 2050. It has about a year and a half to study the issue and make its recommendation.

Clinton Reeder, coordinator of the task force, said the situation the county finds itself in is a "major problem" in that it is violating the commitment it made last fall.

"We thought the moratorium on development would be killed," he said.

But Doug Woodcock, director of the Oregon Water Resources Department warned that water was only going to get more scarce in that part of the county, and thus the issue of rationing the supply more critical.

The critical groundwater areas should probably be larger than they are, he said.

"The way things are going, we're headed down a path of continued regulation," he said.

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