OLYMPIA — Several senators criticized Tuesday a recent Washington Supreme Court decision that threatens to halt home building in farm communities and said they will try to counteract the decision in the upcoming legislative session.
“It’s totally ridiculous, what’s going on. It’s killing rural America,” said Republican Sen. Brian Dansel, who represents the state’s sparsely populated northeastern corner.
The 6-3 ruling in Hirst v. Whatcom County in October struck down the routine approval of new domestic wells. It also gave the 2017 Legislature another major battle along rural and urban lines.
The issue of whether wells can be drilled in places not served by waterlines has “bumped its way to the top of our list,” said Moses Lake Republican Judy Warnick, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Development Committee.
The committee was briefed on the ruling by the Department of Ecology and others. Domestic wells statewide are responsible for 1 percent of water consumption, and Ecology said new wells for single-family homes were OK in Whatcom County.
The high court, however, agreed with the environmental group Futurewise and other plaintiffs that cumulatively new wells could cut into existing water rights, including minimum stream flows for fish.
The ruling jeopardizes home building statewide. Prospective homebuilders may have to prove to county building departments that their wells won’t harm other users, a potentially expensive and difficult undertaking for residents and counties.
The Washington Farm Bureau and other groups have condemned the decision for dashing the dreams of rural homeowners.
“I can’t overstate the impact of this decision on average people,” Washington Realtors policy director Bill Clarke said.
Ecology water resources manager Dave Christensen told the committee that the agency has been receiving dozens of calls a day from worried residents. “Landowners are upset and concerned,” he said.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said the Hirst decision would force people to live in crowded cities.
“That’s really not the life a lot of Washingtonians want to have, but that seems to be the end goal of what’s happening here,” he said.
Futurewise state policy director Bryce Yadon said in an interview that the group wants to protect senior water rights, not end rural homebuilding.
The Hirst decision, he said, “doesn’t shut down rural development. It just makes sure it’s not occurring in inappropriate areas because there is no water.”
Yadon said lawmakers could help rural homebuilders by setting up a process for finding water for new wells. “It’s a great area for the Legislature to step in,” he said.
The session was tilted heavily toward nullifying the ruling with legislation. Warnick said she expects a long and complicated battle once the session begins.
“I think they (environmental groups) are probably more than pleased about the decision,” she said. “We’re looking at less than 1 percent of the water usage. It makes wonder. It really does.”
Futurewise was founded more than 25 years to support the state’s Growth Management Act. One of the group’s goals is to concentrate growth in cities, according to its website.
Whatcom County Executive Director Jack Louws said county officials are hearing from people who spent their savings on land and hoped to build.
“I want you to know the calls are heart breaking,” he told senators.