October 24, 2017

On water, panelists say a permanent, balanced solution to Hirst can be reached

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Water, and the laws that govern it, is a complicated matter.

 It got more complicated last year with the state Supreme Court's Hirst water rights ruling that changed the process -- and not for the better -- for permits for domestic water wells.

"I remember the day of the Hirst ruling well," said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake and panelist for the water issues discussion. "It's the day the state Supreme Court overturned years of standing water law."

And, she said, the ruling has done more to hurt rural Washington than anything she has ever seen.

Case in point, in a meeting with the state's banking association, the message Warnick said she received was that without a permanent legislative solution to the Hirst ruling, investment in economic development and home building loans are not being made.

Warnick also cited the recently published study by the Building Industry Association of Washington, which found that the court's law change will have a nearly $7 billion economic impact, mostly in rural Washington.

Lawmakers grappled with a solution to fix Hirst throughout this year's record 193-day session. Warnick said the bipartisan support for her legislation that passed the Senate four times only to stall in the House has left families seeking a domestic well permit in limbo.

Panelist Matt Bachmann, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, described how water availability is determined through science and data collection. Of the findings, half of Washington's water goes to irrigation for agriculture and only 2 percent is allocated to to wells, he said -- the very wells impacted by the Hirst ruling.

Mentor Law Group Principal Joe Mentor has worked on water law cases for years. He told attendees that water law can be a "blunt instrument" because whenever a change is made to give more access to water one place, such as irrigation, it takes water away in another place.

Despite the divide on a solution to Hirst, Warnick remains optimistic that a balanced, bipartisan solution can be reached.

Lawmakers continue to work on finding an answer to Hirst, Warnick said. "We want to preserve water to live and make a living. And, I want to carry on our tradition of preserving water in ways that balance the needs of our environment and landowners and families."

"Water is taken for granted," said the panel's moderator Mike Schwisow, director of government relations at Washington State Water Resources Association and the Columbia Basin Development League. That is, he said, until it's not available.

For more information on the Hirst ruling, contact AWB Government Affairs Director Mike Ennis.