Warnick: Leaders still talking about Hirst fix, capital budget

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MOSES LAKE — State legislators are still trying to sort out a fix for last fall’s Hirst decision that will allow them to pass the state’s $4 billion capital budget for 2017-2019.

“I’ve had several meetings, and there’s nothing real new to report,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, in an interview with the Columbia Basin Herald.

Warnick, who said legislators have been reviewing the fine points of what they agreed to in June, has been leading the state senate in an effort to pass legislation to “fix” the Hirst decision. Last fall, the state Supreme Court ruled in Whatcom County v. Hirst that counties had an obligation to determine whether well drilling had an effect of surface water before allowing even exempt wells to be drilled.

The ruling has hit counties with in-stream flow rules — rules designed to set aside river and stream water for wildlife and Native American tribes — especially hard, though it is unclear how the decision applies to Grant County, which has little if any state supervised surface water.

However, at least one home lender — Washington Federal — has said it will limit home loans in this state because of the ruling.

“We talked about added funds in the capital budget to help with projects that ecology could work on regarding instream flow enhancements for fish and habitat,” Warnick said.

And that’s why the failure of the state legislature to agree on a Hirst fix has also held up the state’s capital budget, Warnick said.

Warnick said the legislature was also trying to fix another court decision, Foster v. Ecology. In the Foster decision, decided in 2015, the State Supreme Court ruled that “instream flows adopted in a rule must be protected from impairment,” according to a synopsis provided on the Department of Ecology website.

The Foster fix was dropped from Warnick’s bill, she said, as was a $300 additional fee for exempt well drillers that would allow Ecology to keep data on whether or how ground water pumped from exempt wells affects rivers and streams.

However, Warnick added that some people in the legislature “wanted veto power over some watershed projects,” something she said is unacceptable to the arid Columbia Basin.

Warnick emphasized that she wants to work with the state’s tribes because they bring “good ideas and experience” to any conversation on water use in Washington.

As to the frustration cities and counties are feeling because important projects cannot be started — such as Ephrata’s Basin Street water line replacement or Othello’s next municipal water well — Warnick said she felt their frustration.

“I’m ready to go,” she said. “We could go back in a day and get it done.”