Washington lawmakers hear Hirst bill favored by tribes

The Washington Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee heard a bill favored by Native American tribes and environmentalists that would drastically curtail the amount of water that could be withdrawn from rural wells.

OLYMPIA — Washington tribes and environmental groups endorsed a bill Monday that would limit withdrawals from new wells to 350 gallons a day, monitored by mandatory meters.

The legislation was presented to the Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee as an alternative to a bill the committee passed last week responding to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling.

Tribal leaders and environmental lobbyists backed the more-restrictive bill sponsored by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “We have a sacred obligation to protect the salmon,” Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius said.

McCoy offered Senate Bill 6316 as a competing measure to one that has some bipartisan support and has moved into position to be voted by the full Senate this week. Senate Bill 6091 would allow new water users to withdraw up to 950 gallons per day and place fewer obstacles to getting a permit to drill.

The Hirst decision 15 months ago upset rules that allowed new household wells. The court said the rules didn’t adequately protect fish. Lawmakers were unable last year to agree on a policy that reopens rural Washington to new wells while stepping up salmon recovery.

While the Senate agriculture committee last week moved toward a bipartisan agreement, the bill heard Monday is unlikely to win support from Republicans or Democrats in rural districts.

Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said the bill would come close to stopping all homebuilding.

“We’re concerned about that because we need farmworker housing and we need to bring grandkids home to work on the farm, and they don’t want to live in the basement,” he said.

Environmental lobbyist Bruce Wishart, representing the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said the organizations strongly support metering wells.

“We believe this bill provides a clear path forward to implement the Hirst decision,” he said.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee was scheduled to hear a Hirst bill Tuesday sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien. House Bill 2740 would establish withdrawal limits, ranging from 350 gallons to 1,000 gallons, depending on the watershed. It also calls for spending $200 million over 10 years on fish projects.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the average person uses 80 to 100 gallons a day for indoor use. Rural residents have told lawmakers they also would like water for gardens, animals and lawns, especially in regions that receive little rain and where green yards provide some protection from wildfires.

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