There is a great deal of frustration these days surrounding water policy in Washington. You may have heard the rallying cries to “fix Hirst,” as developers, Realtors and banks called for a state Supreme Court decision to be overturned. In fact, the push to upend Whatcom County v. Hirst ultimately prevented the passage of a bipartisan-supported capital budget that would have funded schools and other universally supported projects.
Overturning Hirst would be a shortsighted fix causing lasting damage to the region, especially since the decision protects everybody’s access to water.
The Hirst decision clarified that Washington’s Growth Management Act requires local governments to protect ground and surface waters by ensuring there is enough water available to accommodate growth before it’s authorized. This is consistent with 100 years of Washington water law, and also means that new water appropriations shouldn’t impair the senior water rights of farmers, municipalities, tribes and the environment.
This doesn’t mean that new growth must stop. It just means that we need to assess how much water there is and how much water is spoken for, before we allocate it. We need to look a little closer at the consequences of our actions before we act.
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If you want to avoid bouncing a check, you balance your checkbook before making a purchase. In water management – much like our personal finances – the best way to avoid water bankruptcy is to look at how much water is legally and physically available before doling it out.
Only when we know we have enough water can we be certain new developments will have access to it now and into the future. New homeowners need certainty that their water won’t get shut off in the future and that they aren’t taking water away from their neighbors.
But when an honest assessment shows we don’t have enough water, we need to take measures to rebuild our reserves, just as we do when our bank account is empty. We can tighten our budgets by conserving water, or we can secure water from senior water right holders. In this manner, we can continue to grow sustainably without impacting everybody’s access to water.
Our great country was built on the treaties negotiated between the United States and Native Nations. I strongly believe that our ancestors negotiated these agreements with the plan for our communities, both native and non-native, to grow and prosper. To do that we need certainty that our shared water resources – the lifeblood of our community – will be accessible both now and into the future.
This includes certainty that those with existing rights to water will be preserved, certainty that our streams will continue to flow so that fish can thrive in them, and certainty that if you build a new home you’ll be able to continue to supply it with water.
Hirst is good law. We don’t need to “fix it,” we need to help local governments implement it so that we all will continue to have access to water.
Water management is a complex issue. Important water policy decisions should not be made under the pressure of budget negotiations. We stand ready to work with our neighbors and the Legislature to implement a water policy that protects everybody’s access to water.
Tim Ballew II is chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.