Water Hopes Could Run Dry in Legislature
Olympia, WA - When the Legislature's opening gavel falls today in Olympia, many in the agricultural
community will be asking: Whither water?
The 2004 session will be Gov. Gary Locke's last; he's not running for re-election. That means it will be his final chance to tie a bow around his water legacy by tackling the divisive issue of relinquishment.
But it is also a short, 60-day session, which means water could easily fall to the bottom of the legislative agenda while other thorny issues, namely spending on education and social services, rise to the top.
Also known as the "use-it-or-lose-it" doctrine, the state's relinquishment law 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 re-sources, said Curt Hart, Department of Ecology's water re-sources spokesman.
According to the Ecology De-partment, the purpose of relinquishment "is to ensure that Washington's limited water sources are put to maximum beneficial use for all of Washington's citizens."
In other words, farmers, or anyone for that matter, who haven't used their water for five years should let it go to those who need it.
"Significant" numbers of small irrigators in the Yakima Valley have lost their water rights because of relinquishment, water-rights lawyer Jim Davis said.
He also said claims on irrigators to give up their rights are more common and especially costly to fight.
For example, the Yakama Nation is alleging that many water users in the Ahtanum sub-basin have relinquished their rights, forcing irrigators to document their usage back to 1957, Davis said.
Hart of Ecology said the burden of proof in a relinquishment proceeding lies with Ecology. "It's not a tool we use all that often," he said.
Most water is relinquished through negotiations in a legal proceeding, he noted, not because of an Ecology dictate, which makes a number difficult to calculate.
Locke has consistently expressed a commitment to reform the doctrine, though he has not said exactly how. Other water issues have taken priority over his last seven years, including watershed planning, municipal water rights and chipping away at a backlog of requests to transfer water rights.
Farmers and ranchers say the law is a drag on their ability to plan ahead, and encourages waste by penalizing those who don't irrigate.
Environmental groups and many Indian tribes say the doctrine helps preserve water levels in streams and aquifers. If it's reformed, fish populations will suffer, they say. They are also pushing a bill on how to set and achieve water levels in streams, also known as instream flows.
State hydrologists use a series of computer-based models that quantify fish habitats at different levels in a river or stream. By matching those depths and velocities to fish preferences, the model tells how many square feet of habitat will be available at different levels.
Brokering a deal between these two points of view will be difficult, but not impossible, said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and the deputy minority floor leader in the House.
Last year, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, sponsored a relinquishment bill that passed the Republican-controlled Senate. But it never got a hearing in the Democrat-controlled House.
As a leading Republican, albeit minority, Chandler will help craft Republican strategy on getting a relinquishment bill passed in the House.
"I do think we have a good chance this year, but the challenge is always in the details," he said.
Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, agrees with Chandler and said if Locke doesn't take the lead, the water issue could get lost in election-year politics.
"If part of his legacy is water, we might get somewhere. If it's not, we'll see a political session setting everybody up for 2004," Hinkle said.
The entire House and half the Senate are up for re-election in November.
Jim Waldo, Locke's water-policy adviser, said the governor is committed to both relinquishment reform and legislation defining how to set and achieve in-stream flows.
"These are two subjects we intend to put a very serious and significant effort into," Waldo said. He said caucus leaders on both sides of the aisle and ranking members on the relevant committees have agreed to put the items at the top of the list.
The Washington Environmental Council, a nonprofit group that serves as a kind of watchdog over the enforcement of state environmental laws, will be making its presence felt in Olympia on water.
Policy director Josh Baldisaid boosting instream flows while letting farmers hang onto water rights indefinitely could cancel each other out.
"If the intent is to accomplish both, we need an in-stream flow bill that isn't going to be undercut by a relinquishment bill," he said.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]