State Senate passes bill (again) aimed at solving controversy over rural wells

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For the second time this year, the Senate approved a bill Tuesday aimed at reversing a state Supreme Court decision against Whatcom County that has kept hundreds of rural homeowners statewide from using or digging new water wells.

Why now? Legislators began a 30-day special session April 24 and, due to procedural rules, bills that passed one chamber but not the other during the regular 105-day session must be re-approved when lawmakers reconvene in overtime.

Among those was Senate Bill 5239, billed as a fix to decision that has confounded politicians and rural homeowners alike in Whatcom and other counties.

In its 6-3 ruling last October that has become known as the Hirst decision, the state Supreme Court said Whatcom County had failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells to reduce flow in streams for fish and other uses. As a result, counties must ensure – independently of the state – that water is physically and legally available before issuing building permits in rural areas.

Whatcom County Council has continued to restrict new rural developments that rely on domestic wells.

The Senate bill, which passed 28-18, says a person who applies for a building permit – or a local agency that grants a permit – would not need to review whether the water supply impairs senior water rights.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, a co-sponsor of SB5239, characterized the Hirst ruling as a “war on rural Washington,” in a news release.

“Most counties don’t have the resources to do the extensive testing mandated by the Hirst ruling, and the testing required is too expensive for the average homeowner,” Honeyford said. “This has effectively brought all forms of building and development across Washington to a screeching halt, and families are suffering as a result.”

Both Honeyford and Republican Sen. Judy Warnick of Moses Lake, the bill’s prime sponsor, urged the House to pass the bill while in special session.

“We need a Hirst fix and we need it now,” Warnick said.