Governor’s water adviser takes cooperative approach to water reform

Capital Press Staff Writer


SEATAC, Wash. - It would be hard for a farmer to argue with Jim Waldo, the governor’s water adviser, when he outlines his goals for water reform: “finding long-term solutions in a common sense way as rapidly as possible.”

That’s the message Waldo shared with growers in his keynote speech, “Water Wars in the New Millennium,” during the Western Washington Horticultural Association’s recent annual convention.

But it isn’t so much his down-to-earth message as how he delivers it that sets Waldo apart from other lawyers involved in water issues.

The grandson of a judge and the son of a trial lawyer, Waldo followed the family tradition and earned a law degree. But as the years went by, he came to believe that solutions can often be hammered out without going to court.

“Lawsuits are a blunt instrument,” he told the growers attending the convention. “We can fashion better solutions face to face than a judge who doesn’t know as much about an issue as the people involved in it.”

Locke obviously likes that approach. Several years ago he asked Waldo to help solve the state’s water problems.

Considering that Waldo ran as a Republican against Locke in 1996, that move by the governor underscores the high level of trust the governor has in him.

Three weeks of talks between the two men persuaded Waldo that he should take on the challenge.

“We came up with a set of goals I could avidly and energetically pursue,” said Waldo.

Surveying the situation, he realized that 20 years of not making decisions about water had led to political gridlock. He also realized that “a long list of issues was sitting there festering that needed attention.”

But because there are so many challenges linked to water reform, Waldo knew that it would take a number of years to get the train on the track and moving forward.

During the legislative session two years ago, he helped get legislation through that allowed water transfers and water-right changes to be handled separately from new water-rights applications.

Thanks to funding for additional staff for the Department of Ecology, this two-line approach became a reality.

Waldo is pleased at that success, pointing out that before the two-track system went into place, the department was issuing 100 decisions per year — yet had 215 applications coming in each year. Not surprisingly, the backlog continued to build up.

With the additional staff, the department was able to do 450 changes per year — four times the volume of previous years. The goal was to get rid of the backlog by the end of 2004.

But with the state facing a $2.4 billion budget hole, it looks likely that some staff will be cut, which Waldo predicts will extend the schedule out another 18 months.

“We have a long way to go,” said Waldo, “but we’ve set up a system and making that system work.”

Another success was a water-reuse program for processors, a tool that Waldo said hadn’t been available until legislation opened the way two years ago.

But there have also been disappointments.

Last year, ambitious omnibus legislation, which included highly controversial issues like instream flows and the state’s use-it-or-lose-it policy, failed to muster enough votes.

Heeding the lesson learned from that disappointment, Waldo is taking another tack.

He plans to focus on some of the issues that don’t need legislation, while also zeroing in on specific portions of the state’s water code.

As part of that strategy, he’ll be working on legislation that implements watershed plans.

“Locally based watershed plans are probably one of the most significant changes,” he said, contrasting that approach to one that is driven from the top down. “But now we need to turn these plans into reality.”

As for the state’s use-it-or-lose-it water policy, Waldo said he’s proposing to replace what’s in the water code with a two-part provision.

The first will involve water banking.

“If it’s your water, and you’re changing from one use to another, you can take the difference and put it in a water bank,” he explained. “Then when you need it, you get back what you put in. You won’t have to live in fear of relinquishing or diminishing your right to the water.”

While he hopes to work on water relinquishment next year, he said he believes this plan for water banking is a potential way to solve relinquishment problems in the immediate future.

“It’s a great tool,” he said. “I think we have a reasonable chance with this.”

Waldo also praised cooperative agreements in three watersheds that involved farmers, tribes and environmentalists. This spirit of cooperation resulted in farmer-initiated plans that led to environmental improvements that benefited fish without hurting farmers’ livelihoods.

He contrasted that sort of approach with Skagit County’s costly and divisive legal battles over buffers.

“One option has a track record with three successes,” he said. “Over here, there are two lawsuits and no action. Which way do you want to go?”


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