The back-to-back votes ended a yearlong standoff created by the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling. Some Democrats said new wells will trample tribal treaty rights. Some Republicans complained lawmakers were turning over millions of dollars to unelected watershed-restoration panels.
Still, Senate Bill 6091 received bipartisan support in both chambers and passed by comfortable margins, 35-14 in the Senate and 66-30 in the House.
“This bill provides a path forward for the people who just want to build on their few acres,” said Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick, the lead Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee.
The court’s decision was based on the assumption that each new well draws water from streams and harms fish. The ruling left individual landowners in the position of having to prove otherwise.
Tribes and environmental groups hailed the decision. The Washington Farm Bureau and other groups said the ruling amounted to a war on rural communities. Republicans kept pressure on Democrats to ease restrictions by withholding votes for a $4 billion capital budget.
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement saying he will sign the Hirst bill. But he added that Republicans had been irresponsible for holding up the capital budget and warned of future debates over water.
“Despite this positive step, pressures on stream flows and salmon will continue to mount in the face of climate change and growing demand for water,” he said.
The Hirst decision stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmentalists over how Whatcom County was carrying out the Growth Management Act. It cast a doubt, however, over whether new wells would be allowed throughout the state.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, said the bill passed Thursday undermined treaties signed by tribes and the U.S. government in the 1850s. He accused the Legislature of usurping the “supreme law of the land.”
“The right to water is guaranteed between one sovereign nation and another sovereign nation,” he said.
Even before Hirst, water was not uniformly available in the state’s 62 watersheds, and the bill passed Thursday won’t change that. Skagit County legislators complained bitterly that some of their constituents still won’t be able to use new wells.
In some watersheds, committees led by the Department of Ecology will meet to develop plans to offset any effect new wells would have on streams. The committees eventually could lead to more restrictive policies.
The committees were expanded in late negotiations to include representatives from farm and environmental groups, as well as irrigation districts and the construction industry. Tribes, cities and counties will also be represented.
The $300 million to mitigate new wells will be spent over 15 years.
The bill includes a new $500 fee on wells and in some places will limit withdrawals to an annual average of 950 gallons a day.
The bill authorizes Ecology to require meters on new wells in parts of Clallam and Kittitas counties. The bill describes the meters as “pilot projects.” Some Republicans said they would fight any proposal to put meters on other rural wells.
The bill also begins to respond to the Supreme Court’s Foster decision. The ruling stopped environmental enhancement projects meant to mitigate for new water withdrawals. The bill authorizes a handful of projects and appoints a task force to study balancing new water uses with protecting fish.