The Legislature, now in special session, must address the damage from a Supreme Court ruling which effectively shut down rural economic development.
DESPITE this historically wet winter, there is a huge political fight underway about the scarcity of water.
The state Legislature failed to resolve it before blowing through its regular session; they are now in overtime. Before lawmakers leave Olympia for good this year, they must clean up the mess left by an October state Supreme Court ruling and restart smart development in Washington’s economically challenged rural counties.
At issue are Washington’s Byzantine water laws. The law tenuously balances century-old water claims for municipalities and farmers with tribal rights to fish in healthy rivers. The law grants limited exemptions for well drilling too.
The Supreme Court ruling knocked that balance askew. In a decision known as the Hirst ruling, the justices put extra scrutiny on — and dramatically raised — the price of drilling wells that are exempted from the water-rights law.
Rural home building has relied on that exemption, and at times abused it. But the state Department of Ecology has a coherent system of managing water rights in oversubscribed watersheds, and the Supreme Court’s decision to run roughshod over those regulations is causing serious economic damage.
Water is the lifeblood of development, so several counties stopped issuing rural home building permits after the Hirst ruling. That means properties that owners were counting on as investments or retirement funds suddenly became worthless with the court’s ruling.
Skagit County is in the vanguard, having struggled with water rights for years. In recent years, 785 parcels have lost $20 million in value, and the county has seen a cumulative economic loss of $157 million, according to legislative testimony from Laura Berg of the Washington Association of Counties. “We think this is coming to a county near you,” she told lawmakers in February.
Fixing the Hirst decision requires navigating between the Growth Management Act, which regulates rural development; Native American tribes; and water-rights holders, who have a legitimate interest in ensuring their taps don’t run dry because of overzealous well drilling.
But the economic damage to rural Washington — which lags extensively behind the superheated central Puget Sound economy — is too great to ignore. It is also too important to be used as a political bargaining chip. The Republican-led Senate passed a Hirst fix with bipartisan support, but the bill was held up in the Democratic-led House.
The Legislature is now back in special session, working to write a two-year budget which finally fully funds education. The House must act. Fixing the Hirst ruling is on the must-do list before lawmakers adjourn for good.