Washington’s water law is probably the most complicated set of statutes we have. The root is in the state’s water code enacted in 1917; and the fact that the waters of Washington State collectively belong to the public and may not be owned by any individual or organization.
Water users must therefore obtain permission to use water for such purposes as irrigation, domestic water supplies, and power generation. This permission is called a “water right.”
Back in 1917, no one imagined that we would run short of water or that one use would create a significant problem for other uses. Both are true today. Plus, you must add to the equation concerns about climate change and the potential for more frequent flooding, drought and wild fires.
In today’s world, we must carefully manage instream flows for fish; we are in dire need of more water storage facilities; we have significant issues with water quality; and we must view as a whole the interplay of all activities within a watershed.
We have situations today that no one could have imagined in 1917. North Bend, for example, has had a building moratorium in place since 1999 because of the city’s inability to provide enough water for domestic use.
Yet the city experiences considerable winter flooding from the Snoqualmie River. And yet again, it is the need to protect instream flows for fish in the Snoqualmie River that prevents the city from having enough water for drinking and other uses.
All this adds up to a critical need for our water laws to promote and reward water conservation.
There are steps we can take. An easy one is to not punish water right holders if they don’t need to use all of their water right.
Under current law, if a water right is not fully used over a five-year period, that portion of the water right is relinquished.
This means that if farmers don’t need to use their full right because of wet weather conditions, they will not have enough water for their crops when drought conditions exist.
Another critical step is to ensure geological surveys in Washington provide the information needed today and in the future regarding a wide range of issues, including the prevention of devastating floods and catastrophic wild fires. Washington’s geological survey was created in 1890.
We need to move our data collection and analysis from the past to the present.
Thoughtful changes in law, founded in good science and common sense, are needed to preserve and protect our ground water and surface water resources.
We must act in ways that conserve and protect our water resources as if our lives depend on it — because they do.
State Sen. Bob Morton (R-Kettle Falls) represents Washington’s 7th District.