Lawmaker proposes county-operated water banks

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 4, 2014 

Rep. Bruce Chandler thinks county-operated water banks are a possible answer to the struggle rural counties face in providing water for growth.

But the Republican from Granger told the Herald after a Tuesday public hearing on his proposed bill that it has been met by ambivalence by some legislators and water managers.

House Bill 2596, which would allow rural counties to use an existing economic development sales tax to buy water rights, met with support from Yakima and Kittitas county commissioners during the hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.

But others opposed it. Ginger Eagle, assistant director of the Washington Public Ports Association, and others said the sales tax currently used for economic development infrastructure and staff already is spread too thin.

The bill would allow rural counties such as Adams, Columbia, Franklin, Grant, Walla Walla and Yakima to use the existing up to 0.09 percent sales tax to buy water rights for water banks, which can pool water rights from willing sellers and then sell the rights to buyers.

Rural counties are defined as having less than 100 people per square mile, and Benton County doesn't meet that standard by about eight people per square mile.

The county and the state Department of Ecology would have to agree that groundwater in the county has been overappropriated, according to the bill.

Chandler told the committee that pressure has grown in the past decade on how water is managed in the state.

"This bill is I think an honest effort in trying to assist local government in providing for all of the increasing demands on water and allowing growth in rural Washington," he said.

The state is at a crossroads, particularly with groundwater, and it is essential that legislators find a path forward that will work for Washington residents, Chandler said.

In several basins across the state, water banks have been the solution, Chandler said. But their creation has been in reaction to litigation or regulatory requirements by Ecology.

Laura Merrill, a policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties, said many counties struggle with water and more could in the future.

This would give counties another tool to address water issues, which can hamper economic development, she said.

In Yakima County, water is overappropriated and the county experiences periodic droughts, with one possible this year, said Briahna Taylor, a vice president of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell Governmental Affairs, which represented Yakima County commissioners at the hearing.

Yakima County commissioners would rather take proactive actions to ensure economic development can move forward and to make sure senior water rights are available for residents and developers, Taylor said.

"Without water, there will be no economic development," she said.

Commissioners would like to establish a local water bank for the county to make sure water rights are available at reasonable rates, Taylor said. Over time, it's likely the water bank could become self-sufficient.

Kittitas County commissioners too support the bill, although they would like to see language added to make sure counties aren't bidding against each other, said Bill Clarke, who represented the commissioners.

He said commissioners were concerned Kittitas County could lose out to large counties like Yakima and Benton.

He argued it is unexceptional to use tax and ratepayer dollars to buy water to provide to the public.

"Water under state law is a public resource and it's made available to the public for their use," he said.

Suncadia Resort in Kittitas County had to place a considerable amount of water in a water bank to offset growth in addition to providing its own senior water rights for the resort, said Paul Eisenberg, senior vice president of development for the resort.

He told the committee he was concerned about whether there was an economic need for counties to step in and provide water banks. It would be a mistake to subsidize water when most users who need it likely can pay the cost, he said.

And Jim Halstrom, a Washington State Horticultural Association lobbyist, said he had problems with public entities using tax dollars to bid against private companies.

The companion bill, Senate Bill 6239, went to a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Water & Rural Economic Development last week.

Chandler said after the public hearing there were some reasonable concerns voiced about relying on water banks that deserve more discussion.

Although it will be a challenge to get anything passed, Chandler said he will continue to work on the bill.

"Counties can't afford to wait," he said.

Rural counties need to have certainty about their future water supply and should be able to experience some growth just as metro areas do, Chandler said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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