Washington state bills take aim at rural water use

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Some lawmakers are taking aim at a recent Washington Supreme Court decision that put the onus on counties to determine whether water is legally available in certain rural areas before they issue building permits.

One bill sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, amends parts of the state law at the heart of the ruling, known as the Hirst decision. County officials, builders, business and farm groups are among supporting the measure, while environmental groups and tribes oppose it.

A competing bill sponsored by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, supports the court decision and sets up a program to help counties find ways to meet the requirements.

In October, the high court ruled that Whatcom County failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells to reduce flow in streams for fish and other uses. The court said counties must ensure, independently of the state, that water is physically and legally available before they issue building permits in certain areas.

Walla Walla County Commissioner Todd Kimball said today that measures already in place in Walla Walla County are addressing concerns raised by the Hirst decision.

“(The) Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership was ahead of the curve on this issue” Kimball said in an email.

In 2009 the partnership purchased water rights and put them in an “exempt well bank” so future land owners in urban areas who wanted to drill an exempt well in the shallow aquifer could buy mitigation credits, he said.