Flawed water-rights ruling must be reversed

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, helps lead the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.
Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, helps lead the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Photo courtesy Washington Legislature

Rarely does the Legislature see an issue that causes as much alarm as the state Supreme Court’s ruling last year in a water-rights case.

The decision in Hirst vs. Whatcom County has become one of those issues that wells up from the ground and forces the Legislature to take notice — or at least it should.

The Hirst ruling essentially junked decades of water law that allowed property owners to drill household-size wells for new homes — when there was no other reliable source of water.

The ruling tramples the right of property owners to build on their own land, reduces property values, and imperils the stream of property-tax revenue that local governments and school districts use for vital programs.

At committee hearings, people from across the state have begged the Legislature to take action. I co-sponsored Senate Bill 5239, which fixes the problem by restoring the law as it existed before the court upended things last October.

Unfortunately, my colleagues in the Democrat-controlled House recently killed the best proposal to bring relief to suffering families around our state.

Small wells have a minimal impact on water supply, less than 1 percent of water use statewide. It used to be that counties could rely on water-availability data from the state Department of Ecology when considering a request for a building permit that relied on such a well.

The Hirst case changed this by requiring counties to make those decisions themselves. Counties, unequipped for this new task, are struggling to implement the court’s order.

Pierce County, for example, does not have the expertise or infrastructure to perform its own water studies any more than it has the in-house expertise to review irrigation plans, geotechnical studies or other reports.

Rural property owners now must pay thousands of dollars for these time-consuming studies that need to meet a “no impact” standard, which some will have difficulty demonstrating. They are finding their plans stymied, life savings jeopardized and dreams delayed.

The long-term costs will be severe. Although it’s too early to know the actual dollar value of the impact on Pierce County, in Skagit County, where similar restrictions on new wells have been in place for some time, the assessor’s office estimates property values have declined $22 million, $157 million in new development has been blocked and over $270,000 in annual property taxes have been shifted to other taxpayers.

Just think of the cost when the effect is felt statewide — the lost property values, the homes that will never be built and the tax burden that will be shifted to others.

And the impact on individuals is enormous. People have scrimped and saved to buy a plot of land where someday they could build, only to have that dream taken away by an arbitrary and misguided court decision. These matters were never a concern for the plaintiffs, and the court was too shortsighted to recognize them.

This issue is not just about rural and urban. This is about people’s lives and well-being, their ability to provide for their families and their communities’ ability to pay for vital services.

The Hirst fix deserves the same attention as the education-funding issue put before us by the state Supreme Court. Yet the House majority has derailed the most popular remedy without advancing an alternative. Why? Will it only go along with the Senate’s Hirst solution if the Senate goes along with a new income tax on personal gains?

We are told the schoolchildren cannot wait. We cannot ignore this one, either. The time to act is now.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, represents the 2nd Legislative District and serves as chair of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.