OLYMPIA — An epic political battle concluded Thursday when state lawmakers agreed on a contentious water use policy bill, clearing the way for passage of a $4.2 billion capital budget containing millions of dollars for housing, schools and community projects in Snohomish County.
First the Senate, then the House approved legislation dealing with the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in the Hirst case before acting on the construction spending plan and bond bill to pay for it.
Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign all three bills as early as Friday.
Thursday night’s action marked the end of a yearlong scrap ignited by Republicans’ refusal to vote on the capital budget absent an accord on water policy. But it didn’t culminate without frustration as many members in both parties in both caucuses faulted the legislation, Senate Bill 6091.
Supporters deemed it a compromise that upset everyone equally. Opponents predicted it would invite more litigation because it failed to respect the water rights of tribes or ensure an adequate supply of water in streams to sustain fish habitat. It passed in the Senate on a 35-14 vote and in the House on a 66-30 margin.
The capital budget passed in both chambers by lopsided votes. The failure to pass the spending plan in 2017 as expected cost more than 50 people their jobs and put funding for dozens of community and housing projects at risk.
“We should have passed it last session,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo. “I am hoping that as we move forward we do not decide the best way to do business is playing politics and holding bills hostage. Rather, we need to be passing bills, like the capital budget, that are good for our state.”
The budget contains money for a slew of undertakings in Snohomish County, including replacing the roof on the Frances Anderson Center in Edmonds, developing a pocket park in downtown Arlington and constructing a new Science, Engineering and Technology building at Edmonds Community College.
Cocoon House, a nonprofit that serves teens, including those who are homeless, will get money to help carry out its plans for an expanded center on Colby Avenue. And HopeWorks Station II, an initiative affiliated with Housing Hope, is in line for financial aid as well.
Meanwhile, Compass Health wants to build an 82-unit supportive housing complex on property it owns at 3322 Broadway. Officials are waiting to see if their request for money from the Housing Trust Fund will be granted.
Negotiators from the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate reached agreement on a Hirst bill Tuesday night.
The Hirst decision said counties can no longer rely on the state Department of Ecology to determine whether there’s enough water for a new well. It meant Snohomish County had to come up with its own system for predicting the effect on water flowing to nearby streams or available to existing wells.
The case applies to developments that would use a relatively limited amount of groundwater. Those properties use so-called exempt wells, also sometimes called permit-exempt wells. The wells use less than 5,000 gallons of water per day.
Environmentalists cheered the result as critical to protecting finite water resources. Rural property owners said the decision blocked them from developing their land unless they conducted expensive hydrology studies proving their well would not impact the area water supply.
Under the new law, spelled out in Senate Bill 6091, counties and cities will once again be able to rely on the state as it did before. Landowners can pay a $500 fee and build. Management plans will be written for 15 of the state’s roughly 60 watersheds. Limits on daily water withdrawals will be imposed in those 15 watersheds to either 3,000 gallons or 950 gallons depending on the watershed.
If mitigation is needed in any of them, the state is committing $300 million over the next 15 years to carry out projects.
“I think it addresses the issues of wells and water management in the state for the next 20 years,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, one of eight lawmakers involved in the negotiations.
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxie, said homeowners are getting “a legal, predictable, reliable water source.”
But environmentalists and tribes opposed the bill.
“I know the tribes are unhappy with it. It gets the state back to continually mismanaging water,” said Daryl Williams, who works on natural resource issues for the Tulalip Tribes.
Bryce Yadon, state policy director for Futurewise, said, “We’re opposed to it. The base policy of this bill overturns the Hirst decision because it doesn’t require local jurisdictions to determine there is available water supply.”
This issue could be back in the courts if management plans and mitigation fail to protect the availability of water, they said.