Hirst fix update: Water bill becomes law

Well in a garden
Rural homeowners and construction businesses are now able to more freely build on and develop plots of land that rely on well water now that SB 6091 has become law. Photo: Philippe Alès

After 18 months of stakeholder meetings and debate, the Washington State Legislature passed and Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill to address the negative effects stemming from the 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision in Whatcom County v. Eric Hirst.

“While far from perfect, this bill helps protect water resources while providing water for families in rural Washington,” said Inslee in an online statement.

Senate Bill 6091 was first heard during a January 8 Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Park Committee public hearing. The measure was then sent to Rules and the Senate floor where it received a 35-14 vote. The bill then received a 66-30 vote in the House, and was signed into law January 19.

Under the bill, a building permit applicant must pay permitting authorities $500 to build on a plot of land reliant on well water. Applicants building in basins with existing watershed planning may then be approved to use a permit-exempt well for domestic use for up to a yearly average of 3,000 gallons per day. Outside of those basins, the wells may draw up to 950 gallons per day.

The measure clarifies that counties and cities may rely on Ecology’s instream flow rules when complying with Growth Management Act (GMA) water availability standards. The bill also establishes a watershed restoration and enhancement account with the goal of $300 million in appropriations for mitigation efforts until 2033.

Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) President Kevin Russell said in an online statement that the association fully supports the measure’s passage. “In the bill…rural areas can continue to rely on the Department of Ecology as the state’s resource manager, which creates certainty and predictability for home builders, property owners and families that rely on household wells to build on rural land.”

The legislation’s prime sponsor is State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-24), and cosponsors include State Sens. Christine Rolfes (D-23) and David Frockt (D-46).

During the January 18 Senate floor debate, Van De Wege spoke to the importance of the legislation for the future of landowners and water users across the state.

“This legislation solves a big problem that has been a stumbling block for a lot of legislation and for the state for the past 18 months,” he said. “It really does ensure water and allows development.”

Van De Wege added that the bill also provides substantial funding for mitigation projects.

“I think the big part of this legislation…is slowing down the water that comes out of streams and trying to make sure we can make up some of the ground we lost and put water back in streams.”

The mitigation money would be used to fund salmon recovery while still allowing Washingtonians to have a reliable source of water, he added.

State Sen. John McCoy (D-38) opposed the bill, arguing that it leaves out requests made by one key stakeholder, and cited concerns with permit issues related to building and drilling for water.

“The tribes throughout these years since the court case have tried to work with others to try to come to a reasonable solution, but in my opinion, they were ignored. There is not much in here that supports what was needed.”

For State Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-10), the piece of legislation will bring great change, but requires Skagit County to adhere to additional requirements under state law.

“We talk about controlling water and making sure everyone has water; this bill will go a long way about doing that,” she said. “I think planning for the future is good, but what about Skagit?”

State Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13), another Hirst bill sponsor, was prime sponsor of last session’s SB 5239, which would have allowed  counties and cities to once again rely on Ecology guidelines to meet GMA water quality standards.

“This bill provides a path forward to the people that just want to build a home on their few acres, it protects people already using wells and it provides certainty to our local governments and to their customers and their residents moving to a new building or a new home.”

She continued: “It sets up a process to continue working on water supply for our municipalities, and that is essential for accommodating the growth in many of our communities.”

Warnick added that the provision for the mitigation account demonstrates that lawmakers “show a commitment to putting significant resources to protecting the environment and helping improve our salmon runs.”

The bill contained an emergency clause and is effective immediately.


  1. I’m extremely happy that this amendment to the Hirst Bill was passed and is effective immediately. I do feel that rather than relying on our rural residents to absorb the responsibility of providing the water for salmon, city residents and businesses be restricted to the same water allotments.


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