OLYMPIA — A Senate committee heard complaints Monday that a Democratic plan to reopen rural Washington to new wells would leave landowners high and dry.
The proposal would cap withdrawals from new wells at 400 gallons a day, compared to the current 5,000-gallon limit. Some property owners told the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that the lower lid would be insufficient for lawns, gardens and animals, a concern shared by the panel’s lead Republican, Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick.
“I would not want to build a house and having nothing around it but weeds,” she said after the hearing.
The two-hour meeting, on day one of a 60-day session, was the first chance for the public to comment on Senate Bill 6091. The legislation responds to the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision. The ruling casts doubt on whether landowners can drill wells in some watersheds, unless they prove they won’t draw any water from streams.
The Democratic proposal could reopen basins to more wells, but with less water allowed each new household. The plan also calls for a new $1,500 fee on wells, trying out metering wells in one watershed and spending at least $200 million over 10 years for fish projects. By 2023, watershed committees made up of government officials and tribes would draw up permanent rules for regulating new wells.
The bill was criticized by farm groups and property-rights advocates. It also was disparaged by tribes and environmental groups as not protective enough of streams.
Some lawmakers, along with the Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, say the bill could be the basis for a plan that aids salmon while allowing rural building.
“This is, by far, not a perfect bill, but the goal of this bill is to allow wells where otherwise there may be prohibitions or problems getting a well,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sequim Democrat Keven Van De Wege, the committee’s chairman.
An earlier version of the proposal called for a daily limit of 350 gallons.
Sierra Club lobbyist Bruce Wishart said a cap is needed to prevent homeowners from consuming large amounts of water outdoors.
“We’re a little disappointed that we’ve gone from 350 to 400, but the idea is to focus on protecting from the impacts of outdoor water use, which really is our greatest concern,” he said.
Warnick said residents in her Eastern Washington district use water to safeguard their houses.
“Without being able to water outdoors, the fire hazards are fairly significant,” she said. “We had a fire go through the flatland, no trees, very, very quickly, and if people didn’t have lawns around their homes, they would have lost their homes.”
Washington Farm Bureau associate director of governmental affairs Evan Sheffels said the 400-gallon limit would be a problem for farm families. “We think 400 gallons is too low, especially when you look at the need for a vegetable garden and fire (protection),” he said.
The 400-gallon limit could be revised by the watershed committees in five years. Cindy Alia, representing the Cattle Producers of Washington and Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, said buyers and lenders can’t wait five years to find out what the permanent rules will be.
“A temporary fix is exactly the same as no fix,” she said. “There has to be a consistency and a known before it is of value.”
Republicans have focused attention on rural well issue by withholding votes to issue bonds to fund a $4 billion capital budget.