Water law changes could evaporate in gridlock

The Associated Press
The Bellingham Herald


OLYMPIA, WA- Proposed changes to the state's water laws were poised to drown in partisan gridlock on Thursday, with House Democrats and Senate Republicans balking at each others' priorities.

A three-bill package of water bills stalled in the House at the end of the Legislature's regular session more than a month ago, one of several victims of a budget impasse.

Gov. Gary Locke and many lawmakers from both parties want two bills aimed at improving watershed planning and solidifying municipal water rights. But a smaller group of mostly Republican legislators - and the Department of Ecology - want a more controversial change designed to rein in the Department of Ecology's power to limit agricultural water use.

That bill, Senate Bill 5028, passed the Republican-controlled Senate 26-22 on a mostly party-line vote. If the House doesn't pass it, Senate leaders say, the Senate won't vote on the other two bills.

Senate Bill 5028 is a a big priority for the state's farmers and other big water users, who want to quash the notion that simply taking water out of a stream - and thereby raising water temperatures downstream - amounts to a pollution violation that can be used to deny water rights.

"We must retain both in this state, quantity and quality," said Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient.

The bill stems from the Department of Ecology's decision last year to order the Methow Valley Irrigation District in north-central Washington to stop using part of its water right to keep stream temperatures down for fish. The department supports the bill because it would also increase Ecology's authority to levy fines for wasting water from $100 per day to $5,000 per day and would leave the department the power to condemn and buy back water rights.

Opponents - mostly environmentalists, Indian tribes and others concerned about salmon recovery - oppose the bill as a giveaway to irrigators.

"By separating water quality and water quantity, we are undermining our water quality law," said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia. "It also undermines salmon recovery."

Indian tribes - who exercise considerable clout in water issues because their water rights stem from treaties - have said the bill could prompt them to file a federal lawsuit that could lead to a sweeping court decision like the landmark ruling that awarded half of the state's fish to tribes in the 1970s.

However, the issue may not arise.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Chairwoman Kelli Linville figures she is a few votes shy of a majority of the House's Democrats to pass the Senate bill.

"We're still counting votes," a frustrated Linville, D-Bellingham, said Thursday.

That could doom two of Linville's own bills, introduced at the behest of Locke, also a Democrat.

"Well then, water's dead," said Senate Majority Whip Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

House Bill 1338 - a priority for many cities around the state - would ensure the rights of cities and other municipal water utilities to grow into water rights as they expand.

In general, water-right holders who don't use all their allotted water run the risk of losing the right to use it in the future. Cities are generally immune from that rule, but the bill expands the definition of "municipal water suppliers" to include public utility districts and other traditional water providers, and also expands their obligations to conserve water.

"This puts them on an even playing field and it also gives them the same responsibilities," Linville said.

The bill passed 83-14 on a broadly bipartisan vote, despite objections that growing populations might dry up water needed for fish habitat.

"We fear that there would be too much taken out of the system," said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a Tulalip Indian. "The state has already issued more paper water than there is real water."

The impasse will also affect House Bill 1336, which creates a grant program and procedures for watershed management plans. The bill passed 73-24.



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