By Pat Jenkins
Land owners and developers in Pierce County, like their counterparts statewide, are still waiting for relief from state government in the dispute over a court ruling affecting water rights.
The 2017 session of the Legislature adjourned in July without any new guidance for counties that are required to produce water resource information under the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling.
Since the beginning of the year, legislators linked state capital budget decisions to a change in state water laws addressing the Hirst case. The Senate and the House of Representatives passed separate versions of legislation on the issue but couldn’t agree on a single approach. For instance, Senate Republicans refused to consider the capital budget until an agreement was reached on the water rights dispute.
The state’s highest court ruled that counties must determine what water is available before issuing building permits. Some proposals that didn’t make it out of the Legislature would have allowed counties to rely on state Department of Ecology (DOE) rules when approving permit-exempt wells — those producing less than 5,000 gallons a day for domestic use, livestock and lawn care. Arguments centered on whether such wells significantly impact the natural habitat of streams and rivers.
In Pierce County, for projects that require wells, the Department of Planning and Land Services approves building permits or subdivisions after builders provide a hydrogeological study that concludes the proposed well won’t iimpact “senior water rights” or impair stream flows. The requirement took effect Nov. 1, 2016.
A permit-exempt well is one drilled for a single-family home. Before the Hirst ruling, such wells didn’t rquire formal water-rights permitting or hydrogeological studies.
Critics of the Hirst decision claim it has prevented some property owners from building on their land without a legislative fix.
State Sen. Randi Becker, one of the legislators from the Second Legislative District that includes south Pierce County, has called the Hirst decision “crippling for rural areas where residents must depend on wells for their water.”
In the case that originated in Whatcom County, the state’s justices ruled that counties must comply with the Growth Management Act by making independent decisions about whether enough water is available before approving a building permit for a project that needs a new well. Before the Hirst decision, many counties relied on DOE assessments of supplies, so well permits were easier to get.
In addition to the impact on construction of private homes, groups that represent builders, contractors and farmers have said the ruling has stymied development around the state.
But Native American tribes and environmentalists say declining water resources must be considered.
State Rep. Andrew Barkis, another of the Second District, said the water rights issue remains a priority that he and other lawmakers want to resolve.