OLYMPIA — Passage of a water-use bill authored by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim cleared the way for agreement on a long-delayed capital budget, one of the year’s most important legislative battles.
What was this bill and why was it so important?
In 2016, the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision essentially halted development across the state when it determined that counties were not adequately examining impacts on stream and river flow levels.
The Hirst decision didn’t affect Sequim-area residents under the Dungeness Water rule, according to Van De Wege.
But it did weigh heavily on last year’s legislative session when Republicans refused to reach an agreement on a state capital budget until Democrats could devise an appropriate Hirst fix.
The capital budget pays for state-funded development, and the stalemate put a delay to a number of projects across the North Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the state, including efforts to improve schools.
Inslee and party leaders were vocal heading into this year’s session that solving the Hirst/capital budget issue was a major priority, and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program that a fix was agreed upon Wednesday night when leaders from each chamber met with the governor.
“I appreciate that the complexity of this issue required several months of negotiations by many legislators,” Inslee said Thursday night in a news release after the bill was passed.
“While far from perfect, this bill helps protect water resources while providing water for families in rural Washington.”
Exempt from the legislation is Skagit County, at the request of tribes that are already working on new water rules in the area, according to Van De Wege. The Yakima and Dungeness watersheds also have other requirements not addressed in the bill.
Van De Wege represents Legislative District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.
He said a December work session provided much of the bill’s framework. With other proposed Hirst fixes floating up from both parties in the House and Senate, Van De Wege said he never imagined his bill would be the one to bring the Hirst issue to a close.
The Hirst bill allows for limited drilling of new wells, each of which would require a $500 fee from landowners. Local work groups will work with the state Department of Ecology to establish water-use guidelines for the next 20 years.
The bill also limits water withdrawals in new wells to 3,000 gallons per day in less crowded areas compared to 950 gallons per day in watersheds that are densely populated.
The bill passed in the Senate with a 35-14 vote before immediately making its way to the House, which passed it 66-30.
Opposition came from senators Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, who urged no votes from the Senate because of the bill’s exclusion of Skagit County, which they both represent.
“We’re on a slippery slope,” Wagoner said. “I believe that supporters of property rights and property owners will regret this bill.”
Said Bailey: “I wish there had been something done for Skagit so I could vote yes, because the rest of the work of this bill is good. But remember, you’ve got friends and neighbors that this bill does not help.”
Also in opposition were Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, and Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who argued that the Hirst fix does nothing for many of the state’s tribes, who hold treaty-established senior water rights.
The tribes, McCoy said, “have tried to work with others to come to a reasonable solution… In my opinion they were ignored.”
Said Pollet: “The right to take fish at usual and accustomed places is guaranteed to the tribes of Washington under the treaties of 1855. Unfortunately, the state will continue a long line of ignoring sovereign rights.”
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, said that while he is not happy with every aspect of the bill, the cooperation that went into its passage is more important.
“We’re here to lead, so I’m asking for a yes vote,” he said. “Let’s get Washington working again.”
Inslee similarly acknowledged that to him the Hirst fix is not perfect, and he expressed concerns about future environmental factors.
“Despite this positive step, pressures on stream flows and salmon will continue to mount in the face of climate change and growing demand for water,” the governor said.
“We must build upon this effort to meet those challenges far into the future and continue to work collaboratively to protect this valuable resource.
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.