The Washington State Supreme Court unanimously backed a 2003 municipal water law that seeks to encourage conservation by protecting water rights and allowing options for future growth.
IN 2003, the state Legislature adopted water legislation intended to help communities plan for the future but not worry about losing their water rights as they complied with growth-management directives to conserve.
The practical goal was to offer a measure of certainty about maintaining water rights, as they worked to use less. The Washington State Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday those changes were not unconstitutional.
Several American Indian tribes, environmental groups and individuals said municipalities were allowed to keep rights to more water than their systems could handle, even if they did not use the water. They objected to a definition of municipalities that included developers along with cities and towns.
“The decision moves the State in a direction that may exacerbate water shortages by allowing growing cities and developers to monopolize and speculate on water rights and future water use, at the expense of farmers, others with current water rights, and native fish habitat,” according to a statement by Earthjustice, which represented individuals, environmental groups and commercial fishermen in the suit.
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The states’ response was to argue the municipalities need some operating room. Utilities are obligated to use water efficiently under land-use laws and state Department of Health planning procedures. They have to produce the rights and assure the state they have capacity for existing and future customers.
The high court’s unanimous decision did not give the challengers much sympathy. It rejected the notion the 2003 law was unconstitutional on its face, and it pointed out that all the fears and complaints were hypothetical, with no specific examples of harm presented. The court said it was open to hearing them, if they happened.
The expectation in law is that cities will work to conserve water and be ready to provide for growth. The 2003 law acknowledges both burdens.