Additional Delays Would Further Hurt Water Rights Process

Published in the Herald-Republic on Wednesday, August 21, 2002

They've got to be kidding. The state is finally making inroads on a deplorable backlog of requests to change existing water rights and now environmental groups want to apply the brakes?
As is usually the case with anything involving western water law, this issue is complex.

The groups were prompted by a recent state Supreme Court ruling in a Pend Oreille County case in July that forbids the state Ecology Department from considering the effect a water transfer has on public uses. They want the agency to delay making any changes until the Legislature can give Ecology that authority.

And there's the rub. Much-needed progress on processing water rights applications would be halted on the assumption that the Legislature is going to change the law -- or that it should change the law. There is no guarantee that will happen. In the meantime, let the department proceed with the processing of backlogged applications.

One local lawmaker doesn't even believe the public interest test applies to changes in existing rights. That interpretation should be addressed before any hold is put on the applications. If there is a problem because of the court ruling, then the Legislature can fix it.

"You shouldn't be opening up the entire water right when it is a routine change or transfer," said Rep. Bruce Chandler, a Granger Republican representing the 15th District. "There shouldn't be an opportunity to compromise an existing right."

Chandler, one of 40 lawmakers out of 147 to whom the conservation groups sent letters asking for legislative action, makes a good point. These are not new water rights, they're modifications of existing ones already in place.

The groups, led by the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said the public resource is at risk if the Ecology Department can't consider such issues as recreation, instream flows, and water quality when acting on transfer requests.

Joining in the request are the Washington Environmental Council, American Rivers, and the Sierra Club. They contend the Supreme Court's ruling is at odds with broader Washington water law and that the court's ruling means citizens of the state can't challenge a request to transfer an existing water right.

An Ecology spokeswoman said the agency had just received the request and is still considering a number of things, such as whether the Supreme Court ruling requires it to modify how it processes water rights changes. These are the things we need to know before we rush into a legislative fix. And let's certainly find out if the fix is needed before the applications for change are stalled by inaction again.

The Legislature allocated Ecology an additional $5.6 million in 2001 to start working off a backlog of some 2,000 requests to change existing water rights. The backlog built up over a number of years because of a lack of staff and a requirement that Ecology consider requests in the order received.

The Legislature also created a so-called two-lines system that placed requests for water-right changes in a different line from those for new requests.

Armed with the money and the two-lines flexibility, Ecology had processed 456 requests in the year that ended June 30, nearly four times the amount in previous years.

It was long overdue action that should continue.


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