OLYMPIA — Democrats outlined a plan in December to help fish while curtailing withdrawals from new rural wells, redistributing water in the wake of the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision.
The proposal could allow more rural families to drill wells for homes. But it would limit withdrawals to 350 gallons a day, as opposed to the current cap of 5,000 gallons. The plan also would impose a $1,500 fee on new wells and set the stage for metering wells.
Some Republicans pushed back against the plan. “It’s unfortunate that these ideas have come forward from the city, the urban bubble,” said Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden. “It really is the rural folks impacted by this, not the urban communities.”
Democrats, who control the House and Senate, aired their proposal at a session attended by lawmakers from both chambers. The plan likely will be the starting point when legislators reconvene in January and take another crack at responding to the 2016 Hirst ruling.
The ruling directed individual landowners to prove their new well won’t affect streams that sometimes run lower than state-set levels. Tribes and environmentalists say the ruling should be enforced to protect fish. Builders, lenders and landowners say the decision has halted well drilling, amounts to a war on rural Washington and should be fixed.
The Washington Farm Bureau brands the ruling as a harsh blow to farm families and communities.
Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said the plan was not as good as Republican legislation to repeal the ruling, but he credited Democrats with putting forward something to negotiate.
“I think it’s better than a moratorium” on new wells, he said. “The amount of water (allowed to be drawn) and the fees do raise concerns.”
To offset new wells, the plan calls for spending $200 million over 10 years on salmon recovery. Basin-level committees made up of state agencies, local governments and tribes would be charged with writing plans to keep new wells from lowering streams.
Fish projects are essential to allowing new wells, said House Environment Committee Chairman Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien. “Without the investments in stream flow recovery, we’re really back to where we started,” he said.
The proposal also calls on Ecology to put meters on wells in one watershed to test monitoring actual use.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s senior adviser on environmental issues, Rob Duff, said the proposal provides a framework for an agreement that eluded lawmakers during the 2017 session.
“I think we’re on the right track here,” he said.
Democrats took control of the Senate in a special election in November. A bill sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, to repeal Hirst is now dead. Senate Republicans, however, still hold enough seats to block the capital budget, a tactic they’ve used to get Democrats to negotiate a Hirst bill.
Warnick said the December meeting was a step forward for Democrats. But she said she couldn’t support the 350-gallon limit, the $1,500 fee or meters on wells. “Not those three things,” she said.