OLYMPIA — The House next week may take up a bill to ensure conservation doesn’t erode agricultural water rights.
Senate Bill 5010 would allow irrigation districts and farmers to retain their full water rights, even if they cut back on use for an extended period.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick, said farmers should be encouraged to save water, without fear of having to relinquish a portion of their water rights.
“There’s kind of a feeling, if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it,” she said during a hearing this session on the bill.
Under certain circumstances, the Department of Ecology can withdraw water rights that haven’t been used for five straight years.
The law cites nearly two dozen exceptions. For example, farmers who irrigate less because of drought, an abundance of rainfall or crop rotations aren’t in danger of losing water rights.
SB 5010 would add conservation to the list. Washington Farm Bureau associate director of governmental relations Evan Sheffels said it leave more water in streams by removing an incentive to occasionally plant water-intensive crops to keep a water right.
“It will result in better outcomes all around,” he said.
Environmental groups and tribes don’t embrace that argument. The Republican-led Senate passed the bill, though most Democrats voted no.
“Agriculture already has over 70 percent of the water rights. This would lead to hoarding of water,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip
Mike Schwisow, a lobbyist for an association of irrigation districts, said conservation-minded irrigators don’t want to lose water rights needed in dry years or to expand acreage.
He said he didn’t know of any irrigation district that has lost a water right for not using it, but he called Warnick’s bill a “common-sense protection.”
“The prudent way of doing business is to be protective of your water rights,” he said.
Environmental groups and tribes say unused water rights should be temporarily or permanently placed in a state-run trust for other beneficial uses.
“The tribe is concerned that it’s inefficient and wasteful to allow users to monopolize water rights when they’re not actually needing them or using them,” Muckleshoot Indian Tribe attorney Ann Tweedy told the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Sheffels said the trust is a good program, if a farmer can afford a good lawyer. “You don’t want to do anything with your water right without a good counsel, and that costs money,” he said.
The bill does not have the backing of Ecology. The department’s water resources manager, Dave Christensen, said the current exceptions and the trust allow farmers to conserve water without losing water rights.
“Our central concern is that this bill would reduce water availability for new landowners.” he said.
Christensen said that there are too many water rights for Ecology to monitor whether they are being fully used. The issue, however, can come up when a water-right holder seeks to change the place and purpose of the right.
“That’s when that water-right holder might find out some of their water right is relinquished if they can’t document they’ve been using it,” he said.
SB 5010 has been referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.