Impasse on water bill means no capital budget for now

By Diana Carlen
WAWG Lobbyist

On July 24, the Washington State Legislature adjourned after 193 consecutive days in session without passing either a state capital budget or legislation addressing the Hirst State Supreme Court water right decision. While a final capital budget providing more than $4 billion for constructions projects across the state had been agreed to by negotiators, the Senate maintained its long-standing position that a capital budget would not be passed until Hirst legislation was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The Hirst legislation would have modified a recent Supreme Court decision by allowing local government water availability decisions for building permits and subdivisions to rely on regulations adopted by the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). In the Hirst decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Growth Management Act imposes a requirement on local governments to independently review new domestic wells for impairment, even if such wells were not subject to regulation under Ecology rules. The Hirst legislation proposed by the Senate (SB 5239) would also have imposed a new fee on rural wells set by Ecology ranging between $300 and $1,500 per well, which would provide for funding totaling at least $10,000,000 per biennium for instream flow restoration to offset new well impacts.

While the Senate had passed their proposed Hirst fix on four separate occasions, the House never brought up the bill for a vote. The impasse over the legislation was due to a dispute over the role of tribal authority regarding management of state water resources. The House supported legislation that would require tribes to provide consent to new wells. Senate Republicans argued that tribes should be consulted and have input, but not have veto power.

When an agreement on a permanent fix to Hirst could not be reached, the House offered legislation providing a 24-month temporary fix that would allow current projects to move forward in exchange for passing the capital budget and continuing to work on a permanent Hirst fix. Senate Republicans rejected this offer because this might not be enough time to move forward with a project and because landowners deserve the certainty of a permanent fix. There was also concern that banks would be leery of providing lending if the fix was merely temporary.

Gov. Inslee has stated he will not call lawmakers back for a fourth special session unless they have a firm plan that will lead to a vote on the capital budget.

The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) supports the Senate Hirst fix and urges legislators to continue negotiations on finding a permanent fix to provide certainty to rural landowners and protect rural economies. WAWG is also very supportive of the Legislature adopting the agreed-upon capital budget which funds important projects across the state, including the Washington State University Plant Sciences Building and the Global Animal Health Building.