The 2017 legislative sessions produced great results, including historic investments in our K-12 education system. Unfortunately, the third special session ended with important unfinished business – including passing a comprehensive, long-term Hirst solution and a capital budget.
By now, you probably know that Hirst refers to a flawed state Supreme Court decision from last October. This is not just our opinion. Justice Debra L. Stephens’ dissent begins with this scathing critique: “The majority’s decision hinges on an interpretation of RCW 19.27.097 that is unsupported by the plain language of the statute, precedent, or common sense.”
Justice Stephens is right.
Despite this dissent, the court ruled that in order for counties to comply with the Growth Management Act, they have an independent responsibility to ensure water availability for land-use decisions – instead of relying on the Department of Ecology (DOE). Having this new legal responsibility caused immediate concern for counties because they do not have the resources to hire legal and on-site hydrogeological analysis for every proposed building permit within their jurisdictions.
The decision curtailed use of permit-exempt wells, which are a staple of rural development. These wells account for only about 1 percent of statewide water usage. In some basins, the court made it much more difficult – if not impossible – for landowners to dig wells on their private property.
Without water, there is no development.
As you can imagine, this problem is crushing the dreams and finances of families. It will eventually reach others too, as rural land values decline dramatically and there’s a major property tax shift. You can also understand how it is negatively affecting several industries, including the banking, real estate and building sectors of our economy, and hurting rural economic development.
We fundamentally believe our state has enough water and families should be allowed to access it on their private property. With this in mind, finding a comprehensive, long-term Hirst solution was a priority for Republicans when the 2017 legislative session began in January.
The Senate responded by passing bipartisan Senate Bill 5239 on Feb. 28. This measure would take our state back to the point prior to the court decision and put the onus back on the DOE to determine legal water availability – not property owners. The Senate passed this bill four times this year, but House Democrats refused to allow it to come forward for a vote.
In an effort to break the impasse, a bipartisan striking amendment to Senate Bill 5239 was introduced in the House on June 30. Once again, House Democrats refused to bring this solution up for consideration. We believe this legislation had the votes to pass the House, and know it would have passed the Senate.
Republicans put another solution on the table on July 14. Unfortunately, as part of these negotiations, House Democrats said they wanted tribes to be given the authority to demand that the DOE close basins. This abdication of our constitutional duties is something Republicans will never support.
House Democrats ultimately proposed a temporary, 24-month option that may have allowed some wells to be drilled. However, it was poorly written and did not provide certainty for legal water in the future. It was not a viable solution.
In the end, House Democrats never brought a bill that would help families negatively impacted by the Hirst decision to the floor this year.
Like we’ve seen with property-rights issues, the primary opposition to a Hirst solution is urban-based lawmakers. The irony is these lawmakers represent fast-growing communities that get their water from rural parts of our state. They continue to push for water policies that are out-of-touch with the needs of rural communities. Republicans represent most of these rural communities.
This issue is worth fighting for until there is a solution. We will continue to negotiate in good faith this interim. We appreciate your continued involvement and support.
Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee