Ag Panel Head Looks to Protect Water Rights



OLYMPIA The Democratic chairwoman of the House agriculture committee said Tuesday she would support legislation to protect farmers from losing water rights they own but have not used.

"Hopefully, we can get together and get something sensible that will be signed by the governor," Rep. Kelli Linville of Whatcom County told members of the Washington State Farm Bureau attending a legislative conference here.

Linville, at the request of Gov. Gary Locke, has been the lead sponsor of a package of water bills that would mainly assist municipalities. Legislators from the Yakima Valley aren't happy with much of the governor's package and have introduced their own legislation to help farmers in danger of losing their water rights.

The policy in question is the "use-it-or-lose-it" provision of state law, also known as relinquishment, which says agriculture gives up water rights that have not been used in the previous five years.

"The policy right now doesn't make sense," Linville said.

She said Rep. Bill Grant, a Democrat from Walla Walla, would be the likely sponsor of legislation to address the issue of relinquishment.

Any Democratic bill would have to contend with bills from Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who both have introduced bills to protect agricultural water rights.

"We fundamentally must recognize water rights as property rights and we're prepared to defend that," Chandler said. He also said agriculture needs more flexibility on where and when water rights can be used.

Chandler's bill to fix relinquishment is House Bill 1537. Honeyford's companion bill in the Senate is Senate Bill 5025. The bills would increase water rights' protection for farmers who intend to make use of their water rights or who have the irrigation equipment in place to use them.

Linville also indicated she could support legislation to resolve a water-rights battle between the Methow Valley Irrigation District and the Department of Ecology.

The department last year directed the irrigation district to stop using its water right, or diverting water from instream flows, because the Twisp and Methow rivers do not meet water-quality standards.

The case is on appeal.

Agricultural lobbyists say the Department of Ecology is improperly exercising its authority over water quality and depriving irrigators of their senior water rights.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5028, which would clarify that diverting water for irrigation is not pollution.


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