Lawmakers grapple over state water policies
OLYMPIA, WA-- When Tim Dennis bought 40 acres of farmland in 1991, he paid $3,000 for each acre of irrigated land.
Now, he says, those acres are worth $300 apiece.
The slump in value, Dennis said, is a result of the state's long-standing "use it or lose it" policy on water rights, one of several water-related issues lawmakers are debating this session.
Because one of the farm's previous owners did not use the land's entire water right, the Department of Ecology ruled in November that the water couldn't be used for irrigation.
"We're penalized for what the previous owner did," Dennis said from the Moxee dairy farm east of Yakima, which he sold in 2000 to Tom DeVries. "It changes the whole value of the farm."
DeVries is furious that he paid too much for waterless land, which puts Dennis - who still works on the farm as a dairyman - in a tough spot.
"We got ripped off - that water was supposed to be here," said DeVries, who estimates he lost about $150,000 in the transaction.
Dennis and DeVries' story highlights the complex debate over water rights in Washington state. Unlike many topics lawmakers consider, water policy is not Republican versus Democrat, or even east versus west. The issue tends to pit environmentalists and tribes against cities and farmers.
In recent years, lawmakers haven't managed to make many significant changes to the state's water laws. Last year, an omnibus water bill that would have created sweeping changes in the state's water policy died, a victim of its own complexity. This session's approach was to address each issue individually in a package of bills.
Farmers like Dennis are devoting much of their energy to eliminating the "use it or lose it" policy.
Senate Bill 5106 allows people to hang onto their full water right if the reason they're using less water is achieved through efficiency in the irrigation system or a change in crops, said sponsor Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.
"If you've got a house that's got five bedrooms and you haven't used two bedrooms in two years, the state shouldn't be able to say we're going to put a bag lady in those bedrooms," said Tip Hudson, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
Opponents say the bill does nothing to conserve water, and will only add to the strain on the state's already maxed-out watersheds.
"I think it's outrageous," said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, one of the Senate's most outspoken members on water rights.
Allowing a landowner to use as much water as their historic highest level would devastate watersheds, Fraser said. For example, farmers who irrigated their crops in the 1930s used far more water than their modern counterparts need thanks to modern irrigation techniques. Granting farmers or ranchers water rights as large as those needed in the 1930s encourages them to waste water, she said.
It also means less water for others, opponents say.
Among the losers could be Indian tribes, who have senior water rights rooted in state and federal law. Tribes also have treaty rights to a portion of the state's salmon runs, and fish suffer when stream levels drop.
"We realize that the state has a huge deficit and we realize there's economic problems in the state, but digging into more exploitation of limited resources is not the answer," said Steve Robinson, quality analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Among the water bills under fire from the commission is a proposal by Gov. Gary Locke that would protect cities' unused water rights to allow future growth.
Robinson calls the proposal ridiculous because it's based on needs of future water users, which no one can predict.
But with Washington's booming population, cities need to be able to plan for the future, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham.
"The issue that has been put off the longest is dealing with the municipal rights," said Linville, head of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Farmers and ranchers also want to ensure they can water their livestock without a permit. The exemption for livestock has been state law since 1945, but was challenged in a January court decision, said Sen. Jim Honeyfor, R-Sunnyside, the bill's sponsor.
Cattle rancher Mike Monson said having unlimited water to nourish his 4,000 cows - each drinks 10-15 gallons per day - is vital to his Selah ranch.
Opponents say the bill exemplifies the larger problem with most of the session's water bills; water resources are limited, and if you give someone more water, someone else must, in turn, get less.
"You could have a huge cattle operation or hog operation and have no limit on the amount of water you can have," Fraser said. "So without a water permit, you could dry up a neighbor's well."
New water users and fish will be hurt the most, Fraser said.
If lawmakers pass many of the water bills, the state is setting itself up for tribal lawsuits, Fraser said.
"There's a lot more sense in finding common solutions towards working together than there is in going to court over and over again," said Robinson, who argues that the state could ease water supply problems through better storage and management.
So why does Washington, a coastal state notorious for incessant rain, even have water issues?
"The assumption was you didn't need to worry," said Jim Waldo, the governor's water policy adviser. "So now we have to go back in some cases where we were not careful enough and address some of those earlier decisions."
Washington's booming population has also put a strain on resources, said Waldo, who estimated the state will probably add a million people over the next 10-15 years.
And though the state has a water-logged reputation, east of the mountains, water is a precious commodity.
"In eastern Washington, without water, you've got nothing," said Curt Hart, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology's water resources program.
On the Net:
The Gov.: http://www.governor.wa.gov/
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission: http://www.nwifc.wa.gov/
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