Washington state officials declared a water drought in 27 watersheds last year, prompting the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought to explore ways the state could improve its response.
To address the issue, Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15) has introduced SB 6036, a measure that would allow water rights donated to the state Trust Water Rights Programs (TWRP) to be directed to drought mitigation if an emergency is issued. State agency officials testifying at a Jan. 14 public hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee argued that the policy could work if some bill language is amended.
Under state law, the TWRP is managed by the state Department of Ecology and allows water rights holders to temporarily or permanently place those rights in the program. The state agency has the authority to declare an emergency drought if it finds a watershed is experiencing or is likely to experience less than 75 percent of its regular water supply. During emergencies, Ecology can then authorize an emergency water right transfer from senior water rights holders to junior water rights holders, or provide water resources drought response grants to water and irrigation districts as a way of reducing drought impacts.
SB 6036 allows those who have donated their water rights to the trust program to be used for mitigating drought, though it stipulates the donors must consent to how it is used. The donor is also capable of withdrawing their permission at any time.
Honeyford told colleagues that the bill’s intent is to provide an option – not a mandate – for those who hold water rights “if they want to do it…hey don’t have to do anything, but it would be a way to get a little more water during this drought.”
Some state agency officials and scientists expressed reservations about the impact to water levels in streams. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Research Scientist Giza Gates told the committee that during a drought, water under the state’s trust rights is all that is available for streams. Diverting some of that water away “could result in moving water from instream resources during times when it is needed most by salmon and the resources that salmon depend upon.”
That view was echoed by Ecology Policy and Program Manager David Christiansen. “Because the bill allows for donations to be used for mitigation, this could lead to impairment (water flow interruption), and that’s our fundamental concern.” However, he added that those issues could be addressed with “additional protections and limitations that would mitigate or reduce the risks for impairing senior water rights.”
No further action is scheduled for SB 6036.