Lawmakers deserve praise for resolving a dispute over water rights and passing a capital budget. But when it comes to ensuring a steady supply of water now and into the future, the state’s work is just the beginning.
A common feeling united many Republican and Democratic lawmakers this month as they passed a long-debated measure concerning rural water rights.
It was relief.
“I am excited to be moving past this,” said state Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, as the bill to address the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision came to the House floor for a vote.
The long-overdue water compromise simultaneously ended an unnecessary months-long stalemate over the state capital budget, allowing about $4 billion in construction projects to move forward.
Lawmakers deserve praise for working through these tough issues. But when it comes to ensuring a steady supply of water now and into the future, the state’s work is just beginning.
The Hirst ruling said that county governments must independently confirm the availability of water before approving new domestic wells, rather than relying on minimum stream-flow rules set by the state Department of Ecology. The change in standards for approving so-called permit-exempt wells, which each drew 5,000 gallons or less of water per day, halted some building projects as county officials scrambled to comply.
The Legislature’s new compromise on Hirst clarifies how such wells can move forward, while launching new watershed planning and water restoration projects to offset those wells’ effects on water supply.
Over the next 15 years, the Legislature plans to spend $300 million on these types of mitigation and water-restoration efforts.
That amounts to the largest commitment the Legislature has ever made to improving stream flows throughout the state, according to Ecology officials.
“For the first time … we’re talking about actually recovering stream flows in some of the most water-scarce basins in the state,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Environment Committee.
The Hirst bill provides a good framework to accomplish these lofty goals. Now, the state must follow through.
Leaders of the state’s tribes, concerned about preserving stream flows and treaty-protected salmon runs, remain dissatisfied with the Hirst agreement partly because it allows new wells to be drilled today in exchange for unspecified future mitigation efforts.
State officials owe it to tribes and other holders of senior water rights to ensure that these future investments fulfill the Legislature’s promise of boosting water resources throughout the state. In some cases, Ecology may need to update its rules governing minimum stream flows to reflect modern sensibilities about preserving wildlife habitat. Local planning committees in 15 watersheds will guide this effort, while simultaneously recommending what mitigation projects to pursue.
The Legislature also must examine the state Supreme Court’s 2015 Foster decision, which changes what kind of mitigation projects cities can perform in exchange for municipal water permits. In the Hirst bill, lawmakers deserve credit for looking ahead and trying to address Foster as well: The law authorizes up to five pilot projects lawmakers hope will provide them with more information about different ways to approach the court ruling.
Many lawmakers are understandably elated to be done with one complicated water-related dispute. But when it comes to statewide water policy, it is a long-term conversation — and one that is just getting started.