Governor’s water legislation falls with a thud
Some eastside legislators said they were disappointed that the focus of the legislation is, for the most part, on municipalities, with scant attention paid to agriculture.
Others in the ag community say they’re disappointed that the bills don’t tackle some of the industry’s concerns head on — among them, the state’s use-it-or-lose-it policy and the use of exempt wells for livestock watering.
“It would be safe to say that agriculture is pretty disappointed that the governor doesn’t have issues that are near and dear to the hearts and minds of farmers and ranchers in his agenda,” said ag lobbyist Chris Cheney. “By and large, the package doesn’t make a big difference for anyone in farming.”
In announcing the legislation, the governor’s office said the package was designed to help the state secure long-term water supplies for economic stability and jobs while sustaining fish and the environment. As such, the bills are part of the governor’s multi-year effort to reform the way the state manages its water supplies.
“Access to clean, plentiful water is vital for our citizens, our businesses and our environment,” said Locke. “But we know that we cannot take it for granted. These bills were designed to give local communities and water suppliers the tools to make sound, long-term decisions for our future.”
Hertha Lund, water official with the state’s Farm Bureau, said the governor’s failure to specifically address the state’s use-it-or-lose-it policy leaves rural Washington in the dark.
“We’re grateful that people are thinking about fixing it, but we need to fix it, not work on the periphery,” she said, referring to legislation that would allow water-right holders to “bank” their water rights in some sort of trust.
Another fear in the ag community is that the state’s Department of Ecology will trim a farmer’s water right at the time of transfer from one agricultural use to another.
Lund said farmers and ranchers are also leery of legislation in the governor’s package that would require municipal water suppliers to implement comprehensive water conservation and efficiency programs in order to maintain an existing water right, even if the water right is not currently being used.
“Concepts like that are problematic to us because we’re afraid they’ll cross over into agriculture,” she said.
Lund pointed out that of the almost 200 billion gallons of water per day that flow into the state by river and precipitation, 81.5 percent flows to the ocean, 16.7 percent evaporates, and only 1.7 percent goes to consumptive use.
“Legislators need to realize that this state has more water than any other state besides Alaska and that Washington depends upon agriculture for a large part of its economic base,” said Lund.
Here is a summary of the governor’s four water bills:
n A watershed planning bill would require detailed strategies on how water-management plans will be implemented. In return, the state would provide up to $100,000 for each watershed planning unit per year to establish agreements with local governments, tribes, water suppliers and others to implement, monitor and update their plans.
n Two other bills would address unresolved issues regarding the management and use of water rights by municipal suppliers.
n The final water-supply bill would simplify the procedures for transferring a water right to be held in a state trust and would allow watershed or regional water banks to be created.
The governor’s bill numbers are Senate bills 5331, 5332, 5333 and 5334; and House bills 1317, 1336, 1337, and 1338. They can be viewed at www.leg.wa.gov.
The governor has also proposed a $16 million package in the state capital budget to help provide safe drinking water, to start planning additional water-storage projects and to help resolve conflicts over agricultural and municipal water use versus the need to preserve fish habitat. The governor said this capital spending will result in more private-sector construction jobs.
“We have made good progress over the past two years to improve how we manage water, and these additional proposals will allow us to continue and even accelerate our progress,” said Locke.
In 2001 and 2002, the Legislature passed laws providing Ecology with more funding and greater flexibility to process water-right applications and bolster the use of county conservancy boards to make water-right decisions.
During 2002, Ecology processed 548 requests to change an existing water right — more than triple the rate experienced before the Legislature provided more funding and greater flexibility.
About 14 percent of the water-right changes that were processed since July 2001 have been handled by local water-conservancy boards. There are now 21 boards operating across the state, supplementing Ecology’s efforts to make water-right decisions.
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