Politics & Government

Bill would allow more rural wells, but landowners, tribes object

Washington lawmakers began their 2018 session on Monday, Jan. 8 and wasted no time getting to work on legislation to address the use of rural water wells.
Washington lawmakers began their 2018 session on Monday, Jan. 8 and wasted no time getting to work on legislation to address the use of rural water wells. AP

The Legislature’s latest attempt to revise state water law to allow more wells in rural and suburban areas got support from the head of the agency that would help make it work but strong criticism Monday from property owners and tribal representatives.

The measure, which sponsor Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, acknowledged was that Senate Bill 6091 “not a perfect bill” and subject to change, would make it much easier to get a permit for a well that would supply 400 gallons of water per day for indoor domestic use.

The legislation also would provide $200 million for mitigation and related efforts to restore and enhance stream flows and aquatic habitat.

“We want landowners to be able to develop their properties, just as landowners before them have done, but we need to make sure it’s done in ways that don’t violate the water rights of existing users or disrupt stream levels crucial to salmon and other fish,” Van De Wege said.

Van De Wege is the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee, after Democrats gained a one-seat majority in the Senate after winning a special election in November.

Over the next five years, special committees in key areas where water quality or quantity is threatened would develop new guidelines known as Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Plans.

It causes more complexity. It just muddies the waters. There must be a simpler solution.

Kathy Sabel of Bellingham

Maia Bellon, director of the state Ecology Department which would oversee parts of the proposed system, said it would provide a structure for long-term sustainability of the state’s water supplies. The 400-gallon per day allowance for indoor domestic use offers a legal supply of water while recognizing water is “a finite resource,” she said.

It also recognizes differences between Eastern and Western Washington, Bellon told the Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee.

But some landowners who have been denied well permits since the state Supreme Court handed down a ruling early last year that calls for more local oversight and control over water permits, said the bill is too complicated.

“It causes more complexity. It just muddies the waters,” Kathy Sabel of Bellingham, said. “There must be a simpler solution.”

Rodney Cawston, of the Colville Confederated Tribes, said each watershed is different and he was concerned about possible restrictions that could hamper tribal efforts to have water to fight wildfires.

“A state-wide, one size fits all water solution does not exist,” Cawston said.

Amendments to the bill could be proposed before Thursday, when the committee is currently scheduled to vote on it.

Legislation to address problems from the Supreme Court decision on water rights law has been a requirement by Senate Republicans to vote for the $4.4 billion capital construction budget.

At issue

The battle over rural water rights stems from the 2016 ruling by the state Supreme Court in a case widely known as Whatcom County v. Hirst. The court required the county to make sure there was enough water – both legally and physically –in streams for fish and those holding senior water rights.

The court ruling, known as the Hirst decision, reached beyond Whatcom to other counties, which also have placed restrictions on new developments in rural areas that rely on what are known as permit-exempt wells. Property owners in rural Whatcom County have been upset and frustrated because they can’t build homes on their land without access to drinking water.

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