OLYMPIA — The Washington Farm Bureau’s water-policy expert said Friday that the Hirst bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will allow farmers to drill wells for homes and worker housing.
The bill attaches “strings and extra process,” but averts building moratoriums, the Farm Bureau’s associate director of government relations, Evan Sheffels, said.
“This is a fix. This is a real Hirst fix,” he said. “While it’s not a perfect bill, it is a good bill for Washington farmers, and fish.”
The bill that emerged from back-to-back votes in the Senate and House late Thursday was a compromise between lawmakers who wanted to repeal the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision and those who wanted to implement it.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Chairman Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, called it a “fragile agreement” with something for everyone to dislike. Most of the “no” votes, however, came from pro-Hirst legislators, who said it wasn’t respectful enough of tribal treaty rights.
Snohohmish County Sen. John McCoy, a member of the Tualip Tribes, warned that water shortages will come from “unfettered drilling.”
“I’m extremely discouraged,” he said. “The tribes have tried to work with others to come to a reasonable solution. In my opinion, they were ignored.”
The lead negotiator for Senate Republicans, Judy Warnick of Moses Lake, said in an interview that she hopes the bill will be a long-term solution to allowing rural landowners to build.
She noted that the deal includes $300 million to be spent over the next 15 years on fish projects. Tribes will have a say in how the money is spent. Watershed plans will be updated or drawn up to protect streams.
“We did our best to try to include tribal interests,” Warnick said. “We certainly made a commitment with the money.”
The Hirst decision pointed to a well-by-well approach to keeping growth from lowering streams. Senate Bill 6091 will focus on watersheds that need the most attention, Sheffels said. “The bill takes us to a much more logical approach.”
The bill’s effect will vary in the state’s 62 watersheds. In more than 40 watersheds, the bill affirms that pre-Hirst rules will prevail. Landowners will not face new fees or lower limits on daily withdrawals.
“It’s a big win to get that cloud of uncertainty removed from those watersheds,” Sheffels said.
In seven watersheds, landowners will pay a new $500 fee to drill a well. Average annual withdrawals will be limited to 3,000 gallons a day. There is no prohibition on watering outdoors, as proposed in earlier Democratic versions.
The seven watersheds are the Nooksack, Nisqually, Lower Chehalis and Upper Chehalis in Western Washington; and the Okanogan, Little Spokane and Colville in Eastern Washington. They already have watershed-management plans, though the plans must be updated.
In eight watersheds, the new fee will apply and the withdrawal limit will be 950 gallons a day. Committees made up of state and local governments, tribes and interest groups, including agriculture, will recommend fish projects and could change fees and withdrawal limits.
“We’re going to work with tribes and work with the agencies to see that these groups deliver the best possible outcomes for everyone,” Sheffels said.
The eight watersheds are all in Western Washington: Snohomish, Cedar-Sammamish, Duwamish-Green, Puyallup-White, Chambers-Clover, Deschutes, Kennedy Goldsborough and Kitsap.
The bill leaves in place pre-Hirst restrictions in a handful of watersheds.