New law speeds water rights applications

YAKIMA -- Starting in July, the state Department of Ecology will speed up the processing of water rights applications under a bill signed this week by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Some applicants for water rights have been waiting decades for their applications to be processed, including Centerville rancher Max Fernandez, who has a sprawling sheep ranch in the Columbia Hills of Klickitat County.

Senate Bill 6267, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, and a House version co-sponsored by Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, encourages the department to contract with the private sector to complete some analysis and technical work on the applications.

The legislation is intended to benefit landowners, cities, irrigators and other public water entities trying to access water for development.

Chandler said the bill was requested by the Ecology Department so the agency could process water rights applications more quickly. The 15th District lawmaker said he worked across party lines to push the legislation.

"I appreciate the governor signing this bill," Chandler said. "It will mean a lot for irrigators and municipal authorities to get an answer back sooner so they can proceed forward.

"This final product is probably the biggest win in the fight over water this year," he added.

Chandler voted against a change to the bill in the House that would have placed what he said would be exorbitant fees on applicants with no guarantee that the backlog of water rights applications would be shortened. The Senate ended up stripping the amendment.

Gregoire vetoed two sections that would have allowed well relocation for ground water rights already issued by the agency. Wells occasionally need to be moved within a quarter-mile of the original well needing extensive repair or when ground water is compromised. The sections that were vetoed would have codified the practice.

Despite the section vetoes, Chandler said the legislation is "still a great move forward."