Hirst bill kicks off session water use talks

old water well
Members of the business community and state officials are weighing in on a newly introduced bill to address stakeholder concerns about the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. Photo: Jolanta Dyr

As legislators embark on the 2018 session, one of the first committee meetings saw introduction of a proposal to address negative effects stemming from the 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision in Whatcom County v. Eric Hirst. Business representatives and state officials believe the legislation is a step in the right direction, but there is room for improvement.

It’s been 12 months since the legislature began working on a fix for landowners, building companies, tribes and local governments. Last session, stakeholders testified that the ruling effectively halted building developments reliant on potable water in rural areas of the state. County and state leadership indicated they were unsure of how to comply and issued emergency building moratoriums in the absence of a legislative fix.

On January 8, the first day of the 2018 session, the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee brought forward Senate Bill 6091 for public comment. The legislation’s sole sponsor is State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-24).

Mike Ennis, Government Affairs Director of environmental issues for the Association of Washington Business (AWB), told panel members that the association hosted two summits on rural jobs last year featuring input from employers, state legislators and economic development organizations.

“Members strongly spoke out in favor of improving the economic prosperity in the rural areas, and finding a legislative fix for the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision was a top objective,” he said.

SB 6091 would require evidence of potable water for building permits to be consistent with the permit’s local jurisdiction, and would allow building permit applicants to provide a well report or other approved means to prove adequate water supply. It would also limit affected domestic or commercial water use to 400 gallons a day of indoor use, including a $1500 fee per building permit. The bill does not specify an allotment for outdoor use.

According to the bill report, there are a wide variety of requirements regarding “instream flow rules,” that is, regulation on water flow levels to ensure healthy supply, which must be adopted by June 30, 2023. The legislation also establishes a priority Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) at least every four years to deal with the issue of measuring new water use. The department must also establish a pilot project in a priority WRIA to decide the likelihood of measuring water use from new groundwater withdrawals.

SB 6091 would establish a legislative task force to make recommendations regarding Ecology authorizations, and would authorize the State Finance Committee to issue up to $200 million to finance Watershed Restoration and Enhancement (WRE) projects.

Ennis added that while AWB opposes the bill, it considers SB 6091 to be a good start.

“We do have concerns and we share concerns about the daily cap on indoor use being too low and the complex process for the possibility of outdoor use.”

However, he added the task force and pilot programs within the bill are positive.

Rob Duff, Senior Policy Advisor on the environment for Governor Jay Inslee, said the governor’s office recognizes the collaboration between members of the legislature, landowners, tribes and other stakeholders over the past year.

“We think that this bill represents a solid attempt to bring all of those perspectives together, and it is never easy on water,” he told committee members. “The governor is hopeful that this bill is providing that framework to address the specific challenges from the court’s decision.”

Ecology Director Maia Bellon testified that population growth, agricultural production and climate changes have put a strain on water availability, especially in rural communities.

“A healthy water supply is essential to the prosperity of Washington communities and is the foundation of our natural environment,” she said, adding that the bill clarifies Ecology’s role, which would reduce uncertainty for local governments and landowners.

Bill Clarke, Policy Advisor for Washington Realtors, told lawmakers that counties and cities should be able to rely on Ecology rules to comply with the Growth Management Act (GMA) without having to go beyond state regulation.

“If you want to achieve a level of protection roughly equivalent to that amount of water use, we think there is an efficient way of doing that,” he said. “It is not creating what we view in the bill right now as a fairly process-heavy effort that doesn’t develop anything and get anything on the ground done until 2023.”

Instead, Clarke recommends a streamlined process that focuses on the largest uses of water with the most effect on instream flows.

The bill is scheduled for executive action on January 11.


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