The Washington Department of Ecology proposes to assess water supplies in targeted watersheds, a first step in judging whether a state Supreme Court decision has truly closed rural areas to new household wells.
The proposal applies to 15 basins, about one-third of the state, most obviously affected by last year’s Hirst decision, a ruling criticized by the Farm Bureau as a blow to farmers who want to build homes or farmworker housing.
The assessments could be followed by conservation measures, storage projects or water-rights transfers to offset new wells. Ecology water resources manager Dave Christensen said Tuesday that the projects would probably take years to complete and that in some places water wouldn’t be found for new homes.
“We don’t want to put it out there that this is going to solve everybody’s problems, but it does start the process to solve some people’s problems,” he said.
Ecology’s proposal, outlined in a budget request for the 2018 legislative session, comes a year after the Supreme Court ruled that counties must make sure each new well doesn’t impair state-set minimum flows for fish. Dissenting justices said the ruling put an impossible burden on counties and individual landowners.
The Republican-led Senate this year moved to nullify the ruling, while the Democratic-controlled House was unable to agree on a response.
The Farm Bureau says the ruling created a crisis for farm families and communities. The Farm Bureau’s associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said Monday that lawmakers still should pass a bill to allow landowners to build on their property.
“The first thing that needs to be done is a legislative fix to the Hirst decision,” he said. “And it can be done with both good environmental outcomes and rural economic outcomes. It’s within reach.”
Counties, landowners, lawmakers and Ecology are still struggling to understand the ruling’s implications, including whether it applies to watersheds where Ecology hasn’t set minimum in-stream flows.
Ecology’s proposal focuses on watersheds in 14 counties with in-stream rules similar to Whatcom County, where the Hirst case originated.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said the Hirst decision affects the entire state and that assessing selected watersheds won’t be enough. “I don’t want to implement Hirst, I want to fix it,” she said. “I’m a little concerned that if I say (Ecology’s) idea is good, I’m admitting Hirst isn’t something we can just fix.”
Ecology has asked for $3 million for the assessments and $20 million for projects.
“I think that’s an excellent start,” said Bryce Yadon, state policy director for Futurewise, an environmental group that was one of the plaintiffs in the Hirst case.
“You can’t just overturn Hirst and say it won’t have impacts,” he said. “We want to see legislation that moves toward implementing it.”
Ecology said it would focus on water projects in 14 counties: Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, Grays Harbor, Thurston, Lewis, Okanogan, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Spokane.