Addressing Stalled Development in Rural Washington

Addressing Stalled Development in Rural Washington
Under HB 1885, Washington counties would once again be able to rely on Department of Ecology guidelines for healthy water levels under the Growth Management Act. Proponents say this would help reverse some of the negative effects of the "Hirst" Supreme Court decision. Photo: Bryan Siders.

A bipartisan bill related to the Hirst Supreme Court decision cleared committee at the end of last week, which would work to restore residential development in rural areas of the state otherwise put on hold. HB 1885 was voted out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, February 16 with a 9-6 majority. Lawmakers supporting the measure testified the current situation is too dire to ignore, while opponents argued the bill does not solve all problems stemmed from the ruling.

Undoing Negative Impacts Of Hirst

State Rep. Jerry Springer (D-45) is prime sponsor. He told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month that HB 1885’s intent is to “allow counties to once again rely on the traditional Ecology rules that were set up before Hirst.” Resolving the Hirst decision along with other water right rulings, and “the greater question of water allocation statewide is a critical issue.”

The state’s high court ruled in October, 2016 that Washingtonians could no longer rely on Department of Ecology (DoE) groundwater permit exemptions for residential wells to meet Growth Management Act (GMA) standards, as it did not protect senior water levels. Washington well water makes up one percent of total water use in the state, and fish populations have proven to hold their own under current conditions.

Without DoE’s exemption, homebuilders developing structures reliant on well water could no longer build without conducting tens of thousands of dollars in hydrogeological studies to prove GMA compliance. Immediately after the court’s decision, many counties issued emergency building moratoriums, which effectively halted development in many rural areas of the state.

Restoring Rural Development

Under the bill:

-counties would once again be able to rely on DoE instream flow rules for complying with GMA standards for protecting surface and groundwater levels, and to prove adequate water supply for potable water;

-residential building permit applicants would be able to present a water well report to prove healthy water levels;

-cities or counties may charge permit applicants up to $250 if the building would rely on well water where instream flows have not been adopted. The fee would be sent to Ecology to be used to collect data on permit-exempt groundwater withdrawals;

-DoE would be able to issue or hold a permit depending on estimated impacts to fish or other aquatic resources, and would be required to establish a domestic well mitigation program.

The measure’s cosponsors include State Reps. Matt Manweller (R-13), Tom Dent (D-13), Brian Blake (D-19), and John Koster (R-39).

Dent told panel members “I’ve had deep discussions with the prime sponsor of this bill and he has agreed to continue to work with me on finding a solution. I have real strong feelings about water…I live in a desert so I know a lot about not having water, and I know how important it is and how it can affect our lives in this state.”

Solution Needed ‘This Session’

State Reps. Vincent Buys (R-42) cited concern with the measure. He said that the decision’s minority opinion said “that none of this should be borne by the actual landowner. In this language…we’re still seeing a $250 assessment that is going to be placed on the homeowner, and I think that’s unfortunate because a lot of these people they are already extending themselves to their max in order to get out on that property.”

He added, “I think we owe it to these people to come up with a solution to the problem that doesn’t rely on more fees for the property owner and more government involvement…I think it’s good to have a variety of ideas out there that we can work with…however I don’t think” the bill “goes far enough, and it still impacts a lot of our people out in the rural communities.”

Springer said, “I think the clear intents of this committee and of the various sponsors of water bills out there are to recognize that we have some work to do here…” and “there will be a compromise that we will have to reach. This is a critical issue that has to be solved and it has to be solved this session…to make sure that we’ve got a solution we can rely on for years to come.”

On Thursday, February 16, the measure was voted out of committee with a 9-6 vote. Representatives in favor included Blake, Chair of the committee; Springer, Mike Chapman (D-24), Vice Chair; and Jim Walsh (R-19). Those in opposition included Buys, and State Reps. Bruce Chandler (R-15) and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34).



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