Lawmakers must agree on a “Hirst fix” that restores certainty to rural Washington while respecting legitimate concerns about dwindling water supplies.
WASHINGTON state lawmakers are exhausted after their marathon session and battle royale over education funding.
But important work remains. To get across the finish line they need a last-minute burst of collaboration to address uncertainty the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling has created for counties across the state.
In Hirst, the court ruled in October that counties must evaluate whether there is adequate water available before permitting new buildings, instead of relying on the state Department of Ecology to make such decisions.
The ruling was the latest in a series of court decisions complicating land use in rural areas with dwindling water supplies.
Lawmakers have proposed a “Hirst fix” enabling counties to continue relying on the Ecology Department, but the deal is bogged down in negotiations.
Relying on the Ecology Department makes sense. Managing water resources is complicated and costly, involving studies of watersheds that cross county lines, layers of water rights established over the last century and analysis of how tapping aquifers affects nearby surface waters.
Lacking legislative clarity — and resources to take on this responsibility — counties have imposed building moratoriums. This has left thousands of rural landowners in limbo, including some who had already drilled wells that they now cannot use.
Lawmakers were close to a solution, but it fell apart at the last minute, in part because of tribal concerns.
Now Hirst is at a stalemate, stalling passage of the state’s $4.2 billion capital-construction budget. This threatens critical projects across the state, including new college buildings, mental-health facilities and nearly $1 billion for K-12 schools.
The Hirst fix will likely add some cost to those developing homes in rural areas in the form of fees paid to the Ecology Department. It will also obligate the Legislature to fully fund the agency’s work on this issue going forward.
Tribes have legitimate concerns about the degradation of streams — and loss of salmon core to their culture.
Rural residents also have legitimate concerns about their property abruptly losing value and their lifestyle being lost because of new interpretations of longstanding growth policy.
A Hirst fix should respect such concerns while acknowledging that it won’t fix the long-term, underlying problem — that change and disruption are inevitable because resources such as water are finite.
Finding the right balance between rural growth and resource preservation will be an increasingly thorny challenge. This will give lawmakers plenty of work in years to come.
Yet the current Legislature does not have the time or bandwidth — in the final days of its third extra inning — for a major overhaul of state water and growth policy.
For now, lawmakers should be able to agree on a Hirst fix that enables counties to continue relying on the Ecology Department, which is better equipped to assess the adequacy of water supplies.