When it comes to the complex future of Washington’s water code, state lawmakers have a plan.

It’s bipartisan. It’s bicameral. And well, perhaps it’s best described as a plan … for a plan.

Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature said they’ve agreed to convene a group to examine aspects of the state’s water code. Lawmakers hope the group could help develop a comprehensive policy on water marketing and transfers for further debate next year.

After The Seattle Times published a story on a Wall Street-backed firm’s aggressive efforts to acquire water rights throughout the state, lawmakers in both parties pitched more than a half-dozen bills this January to overhaul or tweak the water code in attempts to address what some viewed as a threat to Washingtonians.

“We now have the rest of the world that can buy our water rights and strangle us,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, during a January committee meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee. “This external threat should be something that unifies us, so we can figure out how to protect the public’s water.”

After wading into arcane water policy, there is one thing lawmakers seem to agree on: Adjusting water policy is so complex and potentially fraught that their ideas need another session of consideration.

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“Having a compressed session and trying to deal with water just doesn’t work,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake. “It’s complicated. You can’t do it in a hurry and you can’t do it in a vacuum.”

The Chewuch Canal Co.’s ditch snakes across the landscape for more than 13 miles. The first half of the canal is open; the rest is piped for efficiency.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Wall Street spends millions to buy up Washington state water

Said Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline: “There are legitimate concerns about unintended consequences. Each time you turn a dial, it has three or four different effects.”

Lawmakers said forming a working group of stakeholders who regularly deal with water policy will produce more complete legislation that avoids unintended consequences.

The Seattle Times last October profiled the Crown Columbia Water Resources company, which acquired millions of dollars in water rights with hopes of creating a water market spanning the Columbia River and much of Eastern Washington.

A company lawyer, Mark Peterson, last year told The Seattle Times he envisioned the Crown Columbia company offering a more free and economically efficient market for water.

But some Methow Valley residents opposed Crown Columbia’s efforts to buy a water right in their region, raising concerns that water sold away from smaller, upstream communities could be removed forever due to agricultural economics and tenets of the water code that make it hard to transfer water upstream.

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Others said they feared business models like Crown Columbia’s could lead to speculation or consolidation of water, a public resource that is treated like a private property right.

Crown Columbia Water Resources uses the state’s Trust Water Rights Program as a vault for its holdings. That program is managed by the state’s Ecology Department and designed, in part, to allow the department to keep more water in streams for fish.

Water banks, the trust water rights program and water transfers are common tools used to redistribute water, which make them key to Washington state’s agricultural economy and for development. Nonprofits, developers and farmers alike use these tools. The state’s Ecology Department manages the programs.

In committee hearings, several lawmakers expressed concern that these programs, as written into law today, could be used to promote private profit above the public interest, particularly as water scarcity becomes a growing concern in the face of climate change and population increases.

“We do need to find a way forward before some billionaire investor buys up a bunch of water,” Salomon said.

Lawmakers proposed myriad ideas to address concerns stemming from the Times’ reporting last October.

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Rep. Keith Goehner, a Republican pear farmer from Dryden, Chelan County, sponsored a House bill that would prohibit the downstream transfer of water rights from certain watersheds.

Salomon proposed a bill that would limit water banking to local watersheds and require water rights purchasers to file purchase and sale agreements with the state Department of Ecology.

“It’s designed to cut out third-party brokers who are speculating for profit,” Salomon said.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, introduced a bill that would create a public interest test for Ecology to apply when processing water rights between basins. The measure also would provide incentive to disclose water rights sales information to the department.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, filed a bill that would require Ecology to take traditional tribal interests into consideration when reviewing water rights applications.

Meanwhile, the Ecology Department promoted bills in both chambers aiming to make water banking more transparent by requiring the department’s approval to form a water bank, allowing public comment on these proposals and clarifying some legislative language over the practice.

The bill requested by Ecology could ultimately pass, stripped of its policy, but as a vehicle to convene the stakeholder work group. Lawmakers also could create the stakeholder group through the state budget, Warnick said.

Both bills call for the work group to present findings to lawmakers by Aug. 1.