Legislature, governor pass bill to settle water-use dispute

By Alex Visser

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

One of the year’s most important legislative battles in Washington state came to a surprisingly quick conclusion Thursday, Jan. 18, when a water-use bill passed both chambers and was sent to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who signed the bill the next day.

In 2016, the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision essentially halted development across the state when it determined that counties were not adequately examining impacts on stream and river flow levels. The decision weighed heavily on last year’s legislative session when Republicans refused to reach an agreement on a state capital budget until Democrats could devise an appropriate Hirst fix. The capital budget pays for state-funded development, and the stalemate put a delay to a number of projects across Washington, including efforts to improve schools.

Inslee and party leaders were vocal heading into this year’s session that solving the Hirst/capital budget issue was a major priority, and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program that a fix was agreed upon Wednesday, Jan. 17, when leaders from each chamber met with the governor.

“I appreciate that the complexity of this issue required several months of negotiations by many legislators,” Inslee said Jan. 18 in a press release. “While far from perfect, this bill helps protect water resources while providing water for families in rural Washington.”

Exempt from the legislation is Skagit County, at the request of tribes that are already working on new water rules in the area, according to Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

The Yakima and Dungeness watersheds also have other requirements not addressed in the bill.

Van De Wege, author of the bill, said a December work session provided much of its framework. With other proposed Hirst fixes floating up from both parties in the House and Senate, Van De Wege said he never imagined his bill would be the one to bring the Hirst issue to a close.

The Hirst bill allows for limited drilling of new wells, each of which would require a $500 fee from landowners.

Local work groups will work with the Department of Ecology to establish water-use guidelines for the next 20 years.

The bill also limits water withdrawals in new wells to 3,000 gallons per day in less crowded areas compared, to 950 gallons per day in watersheds that are densely populated.

The bill passed in the Senate with a 35-14 vote, before immediately making its way to the House, who passed it 66-30. A capital budget bill also passed both houses, and the governor said he would soon sign both bills into law.

Opposition came from senators Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, who urged no votes from the Senate because of the bill’s exclusion of Skagit County, which they both represent.

“We’re on a slippery slope,” Wagoner said. “I believe that supporters of property rights and property owners will regret this bill.”

“I wish there had been something done for Skagit so I could vote yes, because the rest of the work of this bill is good,” Bailey said. “But remember, you’ve got friends and neighbors that this bill does not help.”

Also in opposition were Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, and Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who argued that the Hirst fix does nothing for many of Washington state’s tribes, who hold treaty-established senior water rights.

The tribes, McCoy said, “have tried to work with others to come to a reasonable solution … In my opinion they were ignored.”

“The right to take fish at usual and accustomed places is guaranteed to the tribes of Washington under the treaties of 1855,” Pollet said. “Unfortunately, the state will continue a long line of ignoring sovereign rights.”

Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, said that while he is not happy with every aspect of the bill, the cooperation that went into its passage is more important.

“We’re here to lead, so I’m asking for a yes vote,” Taylor said. “Let’s get Washington working again.”

Inslee similarly acknowledged that to him the Hirst fix is not perfect, and he expressed concerns about future environmental factors.

“Despite this positive step, pressures on stream flows and salmon will continue to mount in the face of climate change and growing demand for water,” the governor said. “We must build upon this effort to meet those challenges far into the future and continue to work collaboratively to protect this valuable resource.

This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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