Mid-Columbia legislators put water, energy at top of to-do lists

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 14, 2013 

While the state budget and education funding are expected to dominate the legislative session that starts today in Olympia, Mid-Columbia lawmakers also have their eyes on some local water and energy issues.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, told the Herald that Eastern Washington faces some critical water issues, including a water deficit in the Yakima River basin and the future of the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada.

The treaty is an agreement between the two nations for development and operation of dams for power and flood control on the upper Columbia River basin. It expires in 2024, but can be terminated with a 10-year notice by either country in 2014. Both countries are reviewing the treaty in advance of the termination notice deadline.

"(The treaty) is probably the most important thing that will happen in the next few years for Central Washington," Chandler said.

In the Yakima River basin, outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire budgeted $23 million to start the water project -- but that will have to be approved by the Legislature when lawmakers write and approve a capital budget.

The money would pay for some of the early action items included in the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan to help restore fisheries and meet agricultural, municipal and domestic water needs in the Basin, according to the governor's policy brief issued in December.

The plan includes seven pieces -- water conservation, habitat and watershed protection and enhancement, groundwater storage, surface water storage, reservoir fish passage, structural and operation changes for efficiency and storage, and market reallocation of water rights. Officials say this would help the entire Basin.


At least one local lawmaker already is gearing up for another fight over Initiative 937, passed by voters in 2006.

The initiative requires utilities with at least 25,000 customers to buy at least 3 percent of their power from eligible renewable resources, such as wind and solar, and increase that to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.

But it doesn't count hydropower as an eligible renewable energy source, and that's been a sticking point for utilities and Eastern Washington lawmakers for the past few years.

Several efforts to amend the initiative have failed in the Legislature, but this year Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, is taking another shot -- this time by introducing a resolution to amend the state Constitution to recognize hydropower as renewable.

Haler has said he hopes his proposed resolution will encourage more debate about renewable standards and whether the standards written into the initiative are in the state's best interest.

To amend the constitution, Haler's resolution would have to go through a public hearing and votes in House and Senate committees, votes by the full House and Senate with two-thirds of the members voting in favor, and be signed by the governor. If all of that happens, the question then goes to the voters in November, where a simple majority is necessary for passage, according to the state constitutional provisions on amendments.


The Legislature as a whole will have to discuss how to fund education in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that said the state was failing in its duty to pay for basic education. But local lawmakers also will be working on education issues of local importance.

Haler and Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, who recently was sworn in as a Benton County commissioner, have said they plan to work to make sure money is secured in the capital budget for a new building for Delta High School, which has a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

The school, a joint project of the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland School districts, has about 400 students and operates in buildings and on land leased from Columbia Basin College.

The school also uses classrooms in a neighboring building also used by CBC, but officials would like to give the school a permanent home.

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