Water Matters: Water politics, again

If you track government budgets at all, last week was a doozy.

As of late Friday, the U.S. Congress allowed the federal operating budget to expire, putting several-hundred thousand federal employees on furlough. Hundreds of our neighbors living on the Peninsula are affected; they’re not allowed to earn money until their elected officials can agree.

On the other hand, the previous night, the Washington State Legislature successfully adopted last year’s $4.2 billion capital budget. Thousands of construction jobs around the state may finally commence, which is cause for celebration.

I’m not saying our state politicians are behaving any better than those in D.C. because, indeed, they borrowed from the D.C. playbook: for the first time our state capital budget and associated jobs were held hostage for over six months by one party insisting on more compromise from the other.

It doesn’t seem right to use taxpaying citizens’ livelihoods as a political weapon, but that’s what happened.

But why this topic in a column about water?

I was among a subset of people on the edge of my seat last week tracking via email notifications the progress of the latest water bill, Senate Bill 6091, in the state legislature as it rapidly moved through committees, amendments, a floor vote, and then to the House for the same routine … and wondering if the hostage would be released if this water bill passed.

I imagine water policy brokers were debating inside and outside of committee rooms; essentially, they had to negotiate a deal agreeable to bipartisan super-majorities in each chamber. Late evening on Thursday they succeeded and, sure enough, the hostage capital budget was adopted post-haste.

If I’d have known it was all going to come together on Thursday night, I might have driven to Olympia to join the crowd of observers in the gallery.

With the political powers of Eastern Washington farmers, I-5 corridor metropolitan purveyors and endangered salmon defenders pitted against one another, a legislative change to the 100-year-old bones of state water law is about as contentious as it gets. In other words, it doesn’t happen. There are attempts every session, but they die in committee.

Over time, instead of being resolved by the legislature, growing water management problems have been resolved in the courts. Sitting judges tease out interpretation from the letter of the law relevant to cases brought to suit.

In particular, the state Supreme Court ruled in the 2016 Hirst case that counties must ensure water is legally as well as physically available before approving rural development; this new requirement was the driver for the Senate’s capital budget hostage-taking last July.

The Court’s 2015 Foster ruling requires that mitigation for new water development be strictly water-for-water; this case primarily impacts cities and PUD water purveyors as they seek new water rights.

Compromise Bill ESSB 6091

“Everybody is unhappy with it fairly equally,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), quoted in the Tacoma News Tribune last week.

“I think that’s the best we’re going to get.”

Introduced by Van De Wege on Jan. 5, the original bill and its “engrossed substitute” adjustments take an ambitious shotgun approach by addressing many issues at once — perhaps in light of how futile incremental attempts have been.

Most prominently, the bill addresses issues for counties resulting from the Hirst ruling by requiring different levels of action within different river basins according to the status of policies made to date. The new process generally relies on local stakeholders to find resolution face to face (albeit on an unrealistic timeline).

Dungeness stakeholders accomplished a great deal this way and since 2013 have a commendable policy in place (WAC 173-518, a.k.a. the “Dungeness Instream Flow Rule”); however, it took two decades to get there.

The bill also addresses the Foster precedent by allowing up to five pilot projects to examine mitigation strategies besides water-for-water “where avoidance and minimization of impacts is not reasonably attainable” (as determined by a legislative task force).

In addition, the bill manages to address not just one but several formerly untouchable elements of water law: it sets limits on groundwater pumping from permit-exempt wells, it studies metering of private wells (the Dungeness is one pilot area), and it assesses a new fee for new users — to pay for studies and additional regulations enacted with the bill.

Will the bill hold water?

It took leadership, compromise, and focused problem-solving to get this legislation through with a supermajority. While it’s a major accomplishment, it’s also not hard to imagine that many interests are unhappy about its new precedents and/or potential failings.

I hope it’s at least sturdy enough to prevent a repeat of people’s jobs being held hostage.

Will the courts get involved?

It’s only a matter of time.

Geek commentary

If you care enough to track streamflow and snow water equivalents, you also need to be a policy wonk; the intersection of water supply management for people, farms and fish is a test for our times.

For the 2018 water year (started Oct. 1, 2017):

• Cumulative rainfall (elev. 25 feet) = 11.7 inches

• At the Dungeness SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet), snowpack = 17 inches; Snow Water Equivalent = 3.1 inches (60 percent of normal); Days/nights below freezing = 13.

Streamflow on Jan. 22:

• Dungeness River = 437 cubic feet per second (cfs). (1 cfs is just less than 650,000 gallons per day). Highest flow to date for the water year = 3770 cfs on Nov. 23.

• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park = about 1 cfs; at the mouth of the creek at Washington Harbor = est. 4 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog @ watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.