It’s been a year since a state Supreme Court decision in a Whatcom county case slowed and in many cases halted the drilling of water wells for private homes in rural areas, nine months since the Legislature began attempts to address the issue and nearly three months since lawmakers reached an impasse and left town.
The court ruled in Hirst that counties could no longer rely on the state Department of Ecology to ensure there was enough water for new wells without affecting the availabilty to those with existing water rights, incuding cities and others, but in particular, enough water to protect streams’ fish runs and the treaty rights of the state’s tribes.
Different legislative proposals came up dry, including an offer to temporarily lift the provisison of the Hirst decision while lawmakers sought a longer-term solution.
The impasse has been costly. It’s meant a virtual stop-work order for many property owners looking to drill wells for homes, but it has also put the brakes on the economic engine that is the state’s capital budget. Senate Republicans have been clear from the start: With no fix for the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, it would not allow passage of a two-year $4.2 billion budget for public projects thoughout the state — including $1 billion in school construction — nor approval of the bonding that funds it.
Heels are dug in as deep as a well, with each side in the dispute pointing to the dire consequences of the deadlock.
Gov. Jay Inslee, Democrat, launched a summer-long tour across the state, pointing to the projects that have been held hostage by Senate Republicans’ refusal to budge on the capital budget.
In Snohomish County, the lack of a capital budget meant a lost summer of construction, including $27 million in funding for schools in Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds; a new $37.8 million science building at Edmonds Community College; and millions more for youth and senior centers, parks and social service projects in nearly every community of the county.
Counting the costs from the other side, the Building Industry Association of Washington in September published a study by HR2 Research and Analytics that sought to outline the economic impacts of Hirst.
The study holds that Hirst will mean a loss of $6.9 billion in annual economic activity in the state, including $4.6 billion for the construction industry; $37 billion in lost property value; $392 million in lost property tax revenue for state and local governments and shift in the tax burden from the state’s rural to suburban and urban areas; and the loss of more than 9,000 jobs in rural Washington.
Even as some Democrats have disputed those figures, considerable economic impact in the rural areas of the state is undeniable. Nor is it a mere inconvenience for property owners to be denied their use of their land.
Counties have devised their own responses to Hirst. Whatcom, Pierce and Spokane counties are requiring property owners to get hydrological studies that can cost at least $5,000. Snohomish County is issuing building permits, but with the property owner’s acknowledgement that water access can’t be guaranteed. The result, said BIAW officials, is either considerable cost for property owners or reluctance or refusal by lenders to finance construction.
Previously we’ve recommended the approach outlined by Inslee and Democrats to pass the capital budget and put a hold on Hirst’s provisions for two years to provide time to reach a longer-term solution. Republicans nixed that idea, wanting more certainty.
But the concerns in resolving the Hirst decision are more complicated than pretending that the Supreme Court decision can simply be shelved.
The BIAW and others are correct that individual wells don’t have a significant or even measureable impact on stream flows and the water rights of others. While such wells are generally permitted up to 5,000 gallons a day, most daily use is no more than 50 gallons.
But it is the cumulative impact of wells that has to be planned for. And as the state has learned when it comes to its responsibility to fix culverts that are blocking salmon passage, it can’t ignore the treaty rights of tribes to adequate stream flows for fish.
Each side can claim a principled stand here, but further delay on a resolution inteferes with private property rights, prevents the long-term protection of water rights, treaty rights and the environment and the obvious benefit of funding new construction of classrooms, parks and other facitilies that benefit everyone.