By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Washington's recently approved state budget appropriates $500,000 for the Department of Ecology to process water right applications.
But with the money comes a proviso: If the department does not issue at least 500 water right decisions by June 30, 2014, it will not receive the funding.
Dan Partridge, an Ecology spokesman, said the goal is reachable, especially once the department can fill vacancies that have been waiting for a decision on the budget.
Also the application process has been streamlined under the state's "Lean" program, which is designed to eliminate unnecessary steps in the process and to encourage employee creativity and problem-solving skills.
"We process applications all year long," he said. "The pending list of applications is about 2,000, dating back as far as 20 years."
The setting of goals also happened in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, he said, when the department was directed to process 500 applications, "which we met and exceeded. We processed 689 water right applications in that period."
This fiscal year, the department set a self-imposed goal of 500, he said, "and we expect the final number to be around 540."
Partridge said if the goal is not met this fiscal year, hopefully the department would not have to lay anyone off, but it would be unable to fill vacancies that occurred during that time.
Elsewhere in the budget is state funding for the Voluntary Stewardship Program. Two counties -- Chelan and Thurston -- will receive $150,000 each in FY 2014 and $123,000 in FY 2015 to help farmers pay for projects that benefit waterways and habitat on their land.
Chelan and Thurston were chosen because their agricultural production land is under pressure from urban growth, said Ron Shultz, director of the state Conservation Commission, which will oversee the program. The counties will have the option to pursue local solutions to conservation threats instead of having the issues decided in court.
The Legislature initially approved the Voluntary Stewardship Program in 2007, but it was not funded until the 2013 budget. The Legislature committed to providing the funding on an ongoing basis and to fund additional counties in future biennia. The budget also provides spending authority for any federal funding that comes available over the next two years that would allow other counties to receive funding for implementation.