By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Farmers who could lose their water rights because they changed to more efficient irrigation methods 20 to 30 years ago would get relief under a bill introduced by Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden.
House Bill 1438 would provide relief primarily for raspberry and blueberry growers in Whatcom County, Wash., who switched from overhead to microdrip irrigation in the 1980s but did not file paperwork on the change.
Filing today would result in complications that could lead to the loss of water rights, Bill Clark, of Whatcom Farm Friends, told the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
The bill directs the Department of Ecology to base its decisions on water rights changes on the statutory rules in place at the time the change of use occurred and not when the application for the change is made. Past provisions would be considered if:
* The applicant implemented the change prior to making the application.
* The change in use resulted from the use of a efficient micro-irrigation technology.
* The change of use resulted in the beneficial use of the water for irrigation.
Maia Bellon, water resources program manager at Ecology, said her agency supports the bill's intent and will work with Buys and stakeholders on a pilot bill.
However, she said, "We have a de facto change policy to authorize changes case by case, so we don't impair senior water right holders."
Jack Field of the Washington Cattlemen's Association said he wants to make sure there are no unintended consequences to stock watering.
Among those opposing HB1438 was Darcy Nonemacher, speaking for the Washington Environmental Council.
"Any time you go back in time to change a decision point in our water rights system, it gets very messy and very complicated about what does that mean for junior water rights if there is a relinquishment issue or if there's illegal water use," Nonemacher said. She said she opposes "anything that perpetuates confusion."
Bruce Wishart of the Sierra Club said the bill appears to provide amnesty for individuals who have conducted conservation without having to apply for a change.
"This is not a good precedent," he said. "We encourage conservation, but want people to go through appropriate processes."