Stakeholders question need to rework water rights

Stakeholders question need to rework water rights
HB 2866 would place certain restrictions on water rights transfers to address a concern by some lawmakers regarding stream flow and water use. Water photo created by whatwolf

House lawmakers have introduced a proposal that would place some restrictions on water rights transfers in order to address concerns over public interest with water use and streamflow, an issue also driving legislation in the Senate. However, stakeholders at a Jan. 31 public hearing of the bill, HB 2866, in the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee raised similar objections of those made against  SB 6301.

“This is a concern…that we need to take a close look at, but before making restrictions on water rates and transfers and water banking and things like that,” Bill Clarke with Washington PUD Association told the committee. “We need to understand what’s really happening in the market.”

Like SB 6301, HB 2688 was introduced in response to a recent Seattle Times story regarding the acquisition of water rights by a Wall Street firm. Applications for new water rights as well as water rights transfers are processed through the state Department of Ecology. The state agency currently has the authority to set minimum streamflow to protect fish, birds and other wildlife. Washington’s watersheds are divided into 63 Water Resource Inventory Areas (WIRA), 28 of which have minimum water flow requirements.

Under HB 2688, a water rights transfer from an upstream WIRA to a downstream WIRA would be prohibited if the water originates from the portion of the Columbia River east of the Cascade Mountains.

Sponsor Keith Goehner (R-12) told colleagues at the public hearing that these transfers “leave(s) those upper reaches of the tributaries without water. There’s a balance here that we’re trying to strike in the private property concept of the water rights being able to be sold, but we’re also trying to protect the public interest.”

The legislation also imposes other stipulations on water rights transfers under certain circumstances, such as irrigated land becoming fallow as a result.

“This bill addresses the opportunity to reestablish some of those productive lands by moving water upstream,” Goerner said. “This would address the ability then to put the land back into productive use. It’s just an attempt here to keep the water at home and yet allow the owner of those water rights to actually still take advantage of that opportunity to sell them.”

However, testimony provided by Kathleen Collins with the Water Policy Alliance underscored the importance of the property rights involved. Speaking on behalf of Collins, Building Industry Association Government Affairs Director Jan Himebaugh said “whether there needs to be more safeguards or restrictions is something we need to take time to examine more carefully. We can’t support restricting water rights within a WIRA, or for only agricultural or instream flow purposes.”

Also opposed was Duane Evans, product sales and leasing division manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. “This bill would diminish our ability to make the most productive use of that asset. We would not be able to make those lands more productive for the trust beneficiaries.”

HB 2688 is scheduled for executive action on Feb. 7.

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