Water bill passes state Senate, goes to House

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DAILY RECORD – MATT SPAW

OLYMPIA — A bill allowing local governments to approve development using state Department of Ecology water rules awaits action in the House of Representatives.

It passed the state Senate Feb. 28 on a 28-21 vote. It is now assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and awaits a public hearing date.

SB 5239’s primary sponsor is Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Water, Trade and Economic Development Committee.

The legislation comes in response to the Hirst decision, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that counties must determine what water is available before issuing building permits. The bill would once again allow counties to rely on Department of Ecology rules when approving permit-exempt wells — those producing less than 5,000 gallons a day domestic use, to water livestock or for lawn care.

Opponents worry the bill will infringe on senior water rights and harm in-stream flow — water available in streams and rivers. The bill allows permits to be mitigated — offset — in ways not requiring water replacement, such as improving stream habitats.

“Section four would allow out of kind mitigation. You can end up with a beautiful stream with a nice habitat, but no water,” said Center for Environmental Law & Policy Attorney Dan Von Seggern. “We want to see water put back in the stream instead.”

Supporters argue permit-exempt wells do not significantly impact nearby streams and rivers because those wells account for 1 percent of water consumption. Opponents counter that the seasonal effects of permit-exempt wells are significant.

“Permit-exempt wells are typically year round, but when people are using them for irrigation it’s largely summertime use, when stream flows are low,” Seggern said. “Permit-exempt water use can be significant when compared to stream flow in a given basin.”

Supporters of the bill are concerned that some property owners have been left unable to build on their land following the Hirst decision. They worry this will continue without a legislative fix.

“There won’t be any development opportunities in Eastern Washington if this doesn’t pass,” said Evan Sheffels, lobbyist for the Washington Farm Bureau. “This bill goes a long way in reversing Hirst.”

Emotional testimony from property owners has been heard in committee meetings. One landowner sold his previous home before finding his new land could not receive a well permit.

If there’s anything both sides agree on, it’s that the bill would reject and reverse the court’s ruling.

“This bill refers us back to the pre-Hirst status quo,” Seggern said.