Hirst-triggered water bills come before House Ag Committee

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Two competing bills designed to solve issues created by the Hirst decision came before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

In fall 2016, the State Supreme Court ruled that counties had failed to comply with the Growth Management Act. The courts ruled that counties must make independent decisions about the availability of water and not rely on the department of Ecology for rules, maps and hydrological information.

House Bill 1918, sponsored by Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell and House Bill 1885 sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland are both designed to allow counties to use Department of Ecology information, but they differ on mitigation.

Stanford’s bill allows the legislature to create a water banking program and a new Water Mitigation Assistance Account. The bill would also require the Department of Ecology to provide information on surface and groundwater as well as assistance with creating the water bank and mitigation programs.

HB 1885 would allow counties to rely on the Department of Ecology’s data and rules when determining if there is enough water to develop property. It would also charge a fee up to $250 for building permit applications to fund the Department’s research. The Department would also be granted the authority to establish a program to alleviate impacts of permit exempt wells in areas where they have a minimum instream flow rule.

Stanford said his bill is closer to the precedent set in Supreme Court decisions than HB 1885 and does more to protect those with senior water rights. He said his bill is similar to Senate Bill 5024 which was introduced by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip in January, though Stanford’s bill relies more on the research of the department of Ecology.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s imperative that we do something to address the current situation,” Stanford said. “A lot of people are stuck in just a really tough spot and we can’t have this huge disruption to our economy, especially in these rural areas.”

Rep. Springer said his bill recognizes that in many areas mitigation, or replacing the water taken, does not work. He said in those areas he doesn’t see water banks as a successful solution to the issues Hirst creates.

“It’s probably the preferable way to go if you have that opportunity, but it doesn’t always work that way,” Springer said. “Particularly in western Washington where you don’t have quite as many opportunities to create a water bank where you save up water from other users and put it back in.”

Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who co-sponsored HB 1885 said the bill was an attempt to engage both parties in solving the issues created in the Hirst decision. Dent said he was not a fan of the $250 fee the bill would impose on applicants, but he does support the return to reliance on Ecology’s data on water availability.

“In the past, we’ve relied on what Ecology’s already done,” Dent said. “We’re sitting here shoving millions of dollars across the street into Ecology, and we’re not going to use their information?”

Evan Sheffels, representing the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, testified against HB 1918 and stayed neutral on HB 1885. He said he did not believe water banks would be an effective method for solving the issues.

He said both bills had sections his organization could support, but he preferred the Senate Republicans’ bill addressing Hirst, SB 5239, sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

David Christensen, representing the Department of Ecology, said both bills had areas they could support, but both would create challenges for the department. Christensen said they supported the provision in HB 1918 that would reduce groundwater exemptions to below 5,000 gallons a day, but he believes the amount of funding the bill requires is an issue.

Christensen said the Department of Ecology supports HB 1885’s return to reliance on Ecology data and rules as well as the flexibility it has when it comes to mitigation and permit exempt wells. The Department is concerned the fee will not cover the additional mitigation costs they would take on.

“We think both bills have very important elements that are part of an ultimate solution,” Christenson said.

Stanford sees these bills as a way to create a bipartisan effort to solve Hirst decision issues before the sessions end.

“We’re all going to have to come together to reach an agreement to fix this problem and find something that can pass both the house and the senate,” Stanford said.

Springer said he anticipates both his and Stanford’s bills undergoing changes and amendments before they go into executive session next week.