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Regional News

State Senate Hears Testimony on Water Rights

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Photo courtesy of Jean-Daniel Echenard via Flickr

A Washington state Senate subcommittee took testimony this week on two bills aimed at dealing with a Supreme Court decision that has left questions over water rights.

The Supreme Court’s Hirst decision from October means Washington counties must make sure there’s enough available water before issuing permits for new developments.

The result of the rule is if someone wants to build a house that relies on that well, they’ll have to prove they won’t infringe on someone else’s water right or violate environmental rules designed to protect fish.

Now two Senate bills have been introduced dealing with the ruling. One, SB 5024, would codify the Hirst ruling, along with some mitigation efforts to protect fish and stream flows. The other, SB5239, would rescind the rule.

Critics say the decision is a major obstacle to obtaining building permits in the county. Spokane County Commissioner Al French says the Hirst decision has created more work for county staff, and makes it difficult for people who want to build homes on unincorporated areas of the county. He cites an example as someone who built their home first, before putting in a well.

“Then you went out and drilled your well, because you know there is water there, and hook it up to the house. Well, if you were caught in that position, you would not be allowed to drill the well, so you could have a built home with no access to water,” French said.

Similarly, French says, someone could run into problems if they drilled their well first while they waited for a couple of years to build their house.

“So you could have property, you could have the well, you could know that you have water, but still not be able to build a house on it, because you didn’t put the water to use,” he said.

The Hirst decision came as a result of a lawsuit by the group Futurewise. Kitty Klitzke from that organization says Spokane County’s method of approving water wells, before the decision, was inadequate in its efforts to protect other water users.

“The health district rubber stamps them. And it was crystal clear to us, when we saw samples of some of the pump tests, that the health district had submitted to them, that they had approved, and they hadn’t even looked at them. They were mathematically incorrect, a couple of them,” Klitzke said.

The health department requirements called for at least one gallon of water per minute, which the Futurewise spokeswoman says is inadequate to ensure there is enough water for all users.

The two bills each received a hearing in Olympia this week, where dozens of people testified.