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Bill targets downstream water rights transfers

Bill targets downstream water rights transfers

The issue of water rights has drawn more focus from state lawmakers in recent years following a Seattle Times story regarding the acquisition of water rights by a Wall Street firm.  Rep. Keith Goehner (R-12) last year sponsored legislation that would have prohibited a water rights transfer from an upstream source to a downstream source in Eastern Washington, but that proposal failed to clear that chamber.

Goehner introduced this session a similar proposal via HB 1385 that would also ban the downstream transfer of water rights and allow upstream transfers under certain requirements. The bill received a March 10 public hearing in the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources, but after the legislative cutoff date for bills to advance from their original chambers.

Applications for new water rights as well as water rights transfers are handled by the state Department of Ecology, which also sets minimum streamflow for 28 of the 63 Water Resource Inventory Areas (WIRA). HB 1385 would prohibit a downstream transfer of water rights in seven WIRAS, all east of the Cascade mountains. The bill would also allow upstream transfers of water rights under various conditions, including that the water being transferred doesn’t exceed historical water quantity used in that stream. 

The bill would also that local conservation districts located within a WIRA to create an agricultural water bank, if approved by Ecology and the county. The bank would then beused to acquire water rights.

Goehner told the committee that allowing the downstream transfer of water rights has left upstream areas, particularly in the Columbia Basin, “without adequate water for their future needs. It really has created challenges for the communities.” He added that the legislation will ensure “those communities have the water that will be there for future need. Water is a marketable commodity. If you only move it downstream…you’d have a very limited market to sell your water to. The upstream component allows for more people to be in the marketplace.”

Those testifying in support of the bill included Washington State Ground Water Association Lobbyist Glen Smith and Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch. Smith warned that the status quo has led to an “increasing trend toward growing speculation and purchase of our state’s water by outside investment sources.”

Branch said there “may be circumstances where it may make sense to move water rights upstream.”

Opposed to the legislation was Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Energy, Water, and Major Projects Division Manager Michael Garrity, who argued that allowing upstream water rights transfers would be “creating a hole in the river with reduced instream flows” and could have negative repercussions for fish.

Ecology Water Resources Program Manager Mayer Verner also opposed the bill, warning that it would “change the fundamental principles of Washington water laws…which could harm the very communities the sponsor seeks to help.” She added that a bill “prioritizes agriculture uses over other uses” by allowing water banks to have a right of first refusal for water rights transfers.

No further action is scheduled for HB 1385.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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