Budgetary carrot spurs on Department of Ecology

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

OLYMPIA -- The Washington Department of Ecology is on its way toward catching up with a backlog of water rights applications, an official says.

Maia Bellon, water resources program manager at the Department of Ecology, said her agency has issued decisions on 400 water right applications as of the end of November.

The Legislature has ordered the agency to address the backlog of applications that had accumulated in recent years, setting a goal of 500 decisions during the current fiscal year.

"We have been laser-beam focused" on reaching that count, Bellon told members of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee.

Legislators also dangled a carrot in front of the department. If the goal isn't reached $500,000 will not be carried forward into the second year of Ecology's budget.

In addressing a "healthy mix" of applications in 22 counties across the state, staffers have worked on new applications and changes and transfers.

The majority of actions have been approvals, she said.

Other issues have been put on the back burner so Ecology can meet the legislators' mandate. Once that is accomplished, she said, staff will refocus on seasonal changes.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, reminded Bellon that potato growers need certainty in those seasonal changes as they plan for irrigation. She said she has been making those immediate needs clear to staffers.

The Legislature had also directed Ecology to review water right application procedures and simplify them.

The agency has partnered with Boeing to streamline the approach to make it "as simple and workable as possible." It has started building in technological processes to route forms and fees, to decrease duplicative contract reviews and to find the highest-priority basins. Applicants will also receive timely notifications of the status of their applications.

"This will help Ecology issue water right decisions at a faster pace, deliver better value to applicants and better outcomes for communities, economies and the environment," Bellon said. It's a continuous improvement process, designed to follow an application "from cradle to grave."

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