Water supplied by wells is the subject of a boiling controversy in Olympia. Photo: George Osodi | Panos

Water-rights issue is at crux of Legislature stalemate | In Olympia

OLYMPIA — No issue in the state Legislature illustrates the urban-rural split in Washington state than what’s euphemistically called “the Hirst fix.”

It refers to stalled legislation in Olympia, crafted mainly by Republican legislators representing rural districts, that seeks to reverse a state Supreme Court decision made in October, the Hirst case, that severely restricts property owners from obtaining permits for new wells.

The Senate, which is ruled by the Majority Coalition Caucus of Republicans and a few conservative Democrats, has passed Senate Bill 5239, authored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who also chairs the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee.

The House, controlled by state Democrats, and Senate negotiators have failed to come to an agreement that would allow the legislation to come to a vote and subsequently be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The political divide

The water-rights issue is reflective of the political divide in the state. Supporters of the legislation say it would reverse the court’s ruling, which they say has created a moratorium on rural development and will force a huge reduction in rural property values.

Those who oppose a repeal — primarily environmentalists and Indian tribes — say the Hirst decision protects the state from unrestrained water usage by property holders and commercial businesses, and ensures greater water availability and in-stream flows for fish.

Before the Hirst ruling, property owners had been allowed over many decades to drill small wells for household use in rural and suburban zones where municipal water system connections weren’t available.

Water-rights law

Republicans say that water-rights laws in the state have adequately regulated the use of these small wells. Erik Smith, the spokesman for the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, said they have so little impact on the state water supply — less than 1 percent statewide — that they’ve been properly exempted from requirements for water-rights permits.

What the Hirst decision has mandated is that county planning departments can no longer rely on “general advice from the Department of Ecology about water availability,” Smith said.

Instead, he noted, they must evaluate each application for new water wells to determine whether each individual household well will reduce the overall supply of water reserved for in-stream fish flows.

That regulatory language is resulting in high costs for hydrological studies for property owners, Smith said.

What’s more, he added, if the studies provide a favorable result, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re free to drill. Counties have reported that they lack the ability to evaluate those results — and some have stopped issuing permits while waiting for the Legislature to decide the issue.

“Every Washington resident who can’t hook up to city water ought to be very, very worried,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who is a member of the Senate’s majority caucus.

“There really is no problem — most of these wells draw only a few hundred gallons a day, and nearly all of that is returned to the groundwater through septic systems and drain fields.

“What’s really going on is that the environmental crowd has been trying for years to restrict growth outside of urban areas. They’ve found the chokepoint — no water means no development. And their message to rural Washington is ‘we don’t care.’ ”

But in an opinion piece printed in the Tacoma News Tribune in April, Arnold Cooper, vice chair of the Squaxin Island Tribe, takes exception to that allegation by Sheldon and others.

“Development can occur in watersheds where there is enough water to supply in-stream flows during critical months,” Cooper wrote.

“In places where this is not the case, local governments and (Department of) Ecology have many tools that will allow development that relies on groundwater …

“Local governments and Ecology must step up to the plate, rather than duck these hard issues, as they have been for decades. They can and should ensure the burden does not fall on individual property owners.”

Senate and House negotiators have come close to a solution during current and special sessions this year in Olympia.

The most recent potential agreement collapsed when House leaders wanted to impose mitigation fees on new applications for water. In response, business groups and property rights organizations, as well as individual property owners, testified during hearings that many will lose their life savings if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Negotiations continue

Sen. Jan Angel, Republican from the 26th Legislative District, said that as of July 11, there’s been little movement toward reaching a consensus on SB 5239.

“As of our conference call (on Monday, July 10), they are continuing to negotiate,” Angel said.

“They’re going to continue to work on it. We’re going to keep going, and hopefully, the governor will get involved and work with us on this.”

But behind the talk of compromise and cooperation between these two halves of the state, there’s a not-so-implicit threat being messaged by Republicans.

“Until such time as there is a Hirst decision, we will not be running a capital budget. And a lot of people want that budget,” Angel said of the funding measure for local projects that legislators can proudly take home to their constituents.

‘No Hirst, No Budget’

And after Gov. Inslee’s recent veto of a portion of compromise legislation crafted to reduce taxes for state manufacturing businesses, Republicans are taking a hard-line stance with their opponents: “No Hirst, No Capital Budget” is their rallying cry as the clock winds down to the end of the third special session on July 20.

“We’re ready to fix this problem and pass a capital budget,” Angel wrote in her July 11 legislative update to district constituents.

“We’re just waiting for the House to put Hirst first and pass the legislation we have sent over to them four times now.”

Kitsap capital projects

Kitsap County has its share of projects that will depend on passage of the capital budget. The City of Port Orchard is looking for state funding to build its downtown pocket park ($309,000), as is the Port of Bremerton for a breakwater for Port Orchard Marina ($258,000).

In Bremerton, the planned Ostrich Creek culvert has funding of $4,688,000 in abeyance, as well as $3,881,000 for the Pine Basin sewer.

Other Bremerton projects in the capital budget include Quincy Square ($250,000), Holly Ridge Center ($176,000) and the Admiral Theatre ($150,000).

The approximately $30 million allocated for the Kitsap projects are part of an overall $4 billion capital budget. It is funded by a combination of state bond and cash.

Capital funds are for …

Capital budget funds are allocated for building, maintaining and renovating public schools, higher education facilities, state buildings, public lands, parks and other state assets, according to the offices of 26th District Reps. Michelle Caldier and Jesse Young.

Both state representatives have been working in conjunction with Sen. Angel to shepherd the projects through the legislative process.