For the first time since state lawmakers began addressing the water rights conundrum known as the Hirst decision, there appears to be a solution in the works acceptable to both parties.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, sponsor of Senate Bill 6091, said at a recent hearing this is the “first time there’s been bipartisan agreement on Hirst and I think that’s going a long way.”
His optimism is encouraging, and we hope this critical piece of legislation finds itself on the fastest track possible to the governor’s desk.
Resolving this issue is absolutely necessary.
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Once approved it could be like the first falling domino — pushed hard enough and a myriad of other stalled projects could start to move.
The Legislature adjourned last July without approving $4 billion in building projects – including $1 billion in school construction.
That’s because Senate Republicans refused to pass the capital budget unless House Democrats agreed to alleviate the problems that resulted from the Hirst decision.
Neither side would budge.
Since then, the whole state has been waiting for legislators to work out their differences this session. If they don’t, it will be devastating to school districts, parks and community infrastructure.
Locally, several Mid-Columbia projects were stalled because state construction funding was never approved. Those included an expansion to the Tri-Tech Skills Center, updating the Princess Theater in Prosser, restoring the Old Tower at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, building the Ridgeline Drive overpass at Highway 395 and construction of the WSU Tri-Cities academic building in Richland.
Lawmakers were in agreement over the capital budget, but Senate Republicans withheld their votes as a way to get House Democrats to the table and negotiate a fix for Hirst.
Last summer we lamented that 200 years of Western water rights history was tossed away when the state Supreme Court ruled that counties — in compliance with the state Growth Management Act — must bear the burden of ensuring there is enough water available before new wells can be drilled. Otherwise, building permits could not be issued.
This ruling, now commonly known as the Hirst decision, brought rural economic development to a halt.
Previously, the state Department of Ecology was responsible for hydrological studies, which can run between $10,000 and $20,000.
But counties can’t afford that, and neither can most land owners.
Without a water study, there can be no building permits and without building permits there can be no growth in rural areas where wells are needed.
The decision was particularly upsetting because some urban hookups draw from the same watersheds as those where wells are needed, which isn’t fair.
We understand the need to protect our instream flows and regulate our water supply, but making it impossible for rural property owners to dig a new well is unacceptable.
Senator Van De Wege said at the committee meeting that his proposal is not perfect.
But it is still promising. If it needs amending, then it needs amending.
But a resolution over the Hirst decision must be found this legislative session, and the capital budget needs approved as well.
We can’t wait another year.