State steps up decisions on water rights - Permit backlog is still a problem

LACEY, WA - 5/2/02 -- The state Department of Ecology has stepped up the pace of water rights decisions, but a major backlog of permits awaiting action remains.

In the first three months of 2002, Ecology processed 158 requests for water right changes, compared with 25 for the same period last year.

The increase in water right rulings is traced to action by the 2001 state Legislature, which:

- Boosted funding for Ecology's water resources program to $7.8 million in the 2001-03 biennium from $2.2 million in 1999-01.

- Created two lines for water rights -- one for those requesting a change or transfer of an existing right and one for those requesting a new water right.

Developers, farmers, business owners and others whose projects use more than 5,000 gallons per day need a water right permit from Ecology.

Developers are increasingly in the market for existing water rights because new ones are often rejected by Ecology in basins where studies suggest there isn't enough water for both people and fish.

Despite the stepped up level of activity, Ecology has a backlog of more than 7,000 new and change-of-use requests. That compares to a total of 7,400 in January 2001, Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said.

"We hope to substantially reduce the backlog by 2005," Hart said.

The report triggered a lukewarm reception from the Building Industry Association of Washington.

"Any progress is good, but we are nowhere near where we ought to be," association legal counsel Kris Tefft said.

A recent state Supreme Court ruling that prohibits developers from using multiple exempt wells to serve a new subdivision will only make the two waiting lines for water rights longer, he said.

Ecology argued successfully before the court against the practice of serving a subdivision by drilling a bunch of wells below the 5,000 gallon per day threshold for requiring a water right.

"It's OK to make more work for ourselves if it means doing a better job of protecting the state's water resources," Hart said.

Simply processing water rights faster doesn't help in-stream flows for fish, noted Josh Baldi, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council.

"Where are the environmental benefits?" Baldi asked.

An Ecology ruling on a water right request is not an automatic win for the applicant.

In the first three months of this year, 63 water-right changes were approved, 46 were denied or cancelled and 49 were withdrawn by the applicant.

In some cases, applicants fail to prove the water would be put to beneficial use, Hart said. Sometimes, the request is for water in a basin already closed to additional withdrawals.

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