Locke Cites Lack of Water-Law Reform as Legislative Setback



Olympia, WA - Failure to reform the state's relinquishment water law long sought by agricultural interests was a major setback for Gov. Gary Locke in his final legislative session, Locke said Friday.

"One of the biggest disappointments would have to be water," Locke said during a telephone interview summing up the 2004 Legislature, which was his last.

Locke, who has been governor since 1997, is not running for re-election.

"We've got to get away from the use-it-or-lose-it mentality and at the same time encourage in-stream flows. In the end, people were more interested in the status quo."

The use-it-or-lose-it doctrine, more formally known as relinquishment, requires water-rights holders to give up their water to the state if they haven't used it for five successive years.

The principal behind the doctrine is common in Western water law, which has evolved to manage heavy demands on water resources.

But agricultural irrigators and water experts say the doctrine actually encourages farmers to waste water so they won't lose their rights.

Environmentalists disagree, and say relinquishment helps return water to streams to protect fish and wildlife habitats.

Early on in the session, hopes were high the two sides could reach an agreement.

Hertha Lund, lobbyist for the Farm Bureau, said she, too, was disappointed by the lack of legislation. She said environmentalists wanted to divert more water to streams from the small percentage that is now used by consumers of all types, from tribes to cities to farmers.

"We need to get away from the idea that it's a zero-sum game where water is concerned," Lund said.

The Washington Environmental Council, a Seattle-based group that works to preserve watersheds, could not be reached for comment.

Locke said his administration made significant gains in water reform in previous sessions.

"Mine was the first administration in 40 years to make any improvements in water," he said.

Locke's administration increased the flexibility of water-rights processing, secured $1.2 million in federal funding to lease or purchase water from farmers during the 2001 drought year, and provided money for watershed planning.

Locke also cited education and health care as legislative "successes." The Legislature funded about 3,000 new enrollments in the higher-education system and restored some safety-net provisions to health care for the poor.

Locke said he was also disappointed by the lack of compromise on medical malpractice reform.


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