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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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In Our View: Balance Water Rights

House should OK bill addressing issues raised by ruling on wells, development

The Columbian

While school funding is the focus of this year’s special session in the Legislature, the extra time also gives the House of Representatives an opportunity to take important action regarding water rights.

A state Supreme Court ruling from October places undue burdens upon development in rural areas, inhibiting landowners and stifling economic growth in many portions of the state. Before leaving Olympia for good this year, members of the Democrat-controlled House should follow the lead of the Senate and pass a bill addressing the issue.

Environmental protections and growth management are important, but those desires should not quash smart development — which is the result of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in Whatcom County v. Hirst. That decision places extra scrutiny upon the state’s precarious balancing of water rights by demanding that counties, independent of the state, guarantee that water is available for development before issuing building permits in certain areas. Several counties, in the wake of the decision, have taken steps to limit the issuing of permits.

The net effect is to make the drilling of new wells prohibitively expensive and impractical for landowners planning minor developments. Legislators heard emotional testimony from landowners who poured their life savings toward building a home in a rural area, only to now be told they are unable to procure a permit because of the court ruling.

“The reason I brought this bill is to take us back to some common-sense water legislation that we had before the Hirst decision,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5239. That bill passed the Senate 28-21 with bipartisan support, including from Sens. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center. The House sent an engrossed version of the bill back to the Senate rules committee, where it has been reintroduced during the special session.

Washington’s intense attention to environmental concerns, including the issues of growth and water rights, long has reflected the desires of residents. Citizens take pride in being a vanguard for the environment, but wise management requires some balance. That balance was knocked off-kilter by the Hirst decision, which overrides the state Department of Ecology’s well-planned efforts to manage water usage. For one example, The Seattle Times reported that Skagit County has seen 785 parcels lose $20 million in value in recent years because of continued wrangling over water rights; the impact is profound in rural areas that already are economically challenged.

When it comes to settlement and development, water amounts to power and wealth, and Washington law strives to balance the rights of municipalities, farmers, and tribal fisheries. In striking that balance, it is important to ensure that the drilling of wells for private development does not impinge upon those rights, but the Hirst ruling creates an unreasonable standard.

As attorney Chris Horne told the Clark County council: “The issue that this presents to the public and the county as a whole is that the cost of doing some hydrogeological testing is substantial. The modeling required for various basins is not an inexpensive venture.” While a desire to limit large developments in rural areas is reasonable, the ruling unfairly encumbers private owners looking to build a single dwelling.

Because of that, the Legislature must to step in and restore some checks and balances to the system.