Battle lines drawn in Washington over new wells

of TVW Washington Water Policy Alliance lobbyist Kathleen Collins testifies Dec. 1 at a joint hearing of the House Agriculture and Local Government committees in Olympia. She warned that a recent state Supreme Court decision threatens to shut down homebuilding in rural areas. The Washington Farm Bureau condemns the ruling for barring farm families from drilling new domestic wells.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in Whatcom County vs. Hirst could shut down rural homebuilding statewide, a lobbyist for farm groups and other water users said Thursday at a House hearing.

“The more I listen to people discuss the Hirst case, the more convinced I am that there will be no growth in the rural area unless we solve the problem,” said Kathleen Collins of the Washington Water Policy Alliance, whose members include irrigators, businesses and cities.

The House Agriculture and Local Government committees held a joint hearing to learn more about the October decision, in which the court ruled that new domestic wells can’t impair existing water rights, including river flows.

Previously, domestic wells, which account for 1 percent of water use, were exempt from such review.

Many bills related to the ruling are likely to be introduced during the 2017 session.

Some groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau, hope lawmakers will blunt the decision. Although the ruling does not threaten to curtail irrigation water rights, the Farm Bureau condemned the decision for effectively prohibiting new homes for farm families.

Environmental groups signaled Wednesday they will defend the thrust of the ruling. The groups are influential in the House, where Democrats hold a majority of seats.

“Obviously, we have to get agreement with the environmental side. I hope that’s possible,” Collins said after the hearing.

In the Hirst case, the environmental group Futurewise and others challenged Whatcom County and the state Department of Ecology. Both agencies said new wells in the county would not harm water resources.

The court, however, ruled that small withdrawals of groundwater add up and deprive rivers of water for fish, wildlife and scenery.

The ruling means prospective homeowners may have to finance expensive studies to prove their wells won’t harm existing water rights. In some watersheds, water rights include minimum river flows set in previous decades by Ecology. Critics say the flow standards are too high and create an artificial scarcity of water.

Proving a new well won’t intercept or draw water from a river may be hard to impossible. Hydrologists say that groundwater and surface waters are connected.

“Water withdrawn from groundwater does impact surface water and therefore senior water rights,” U.S. Geological Service hydrologist Matt Bachmann told House members.

“That impact is commonly too small to measure for a small domestic well, but it is not too small to measure cumulatively if you look at all domestic wells in a basin,” he said.

Environmental lobbyist Bruce Wishart said new wells could still be drilled in places where unused water rights could be purchased.

“If nothing else, there’s a final option. You can avoid impacts altogether by using a cistern, with rainwater collection or trucked-in water,” he said.

Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, said the Supreme Court ruling safeguards existing water users. “We’re trying to protect the senior rights holders, as we have done consistently,” he said.

Collins, however, faulted the Supreme Court for placing stream flows above other uses for water.

“They have lost that sense of balance. They are not looking at out-of-stream needs and how you accommodate those,” she said.

She said that not everybody wants to or can live in a city. “There is an economic force out there that requires people to live in rural areas,” she said.

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