Bill could give ruralites relief from Hirst

Van De Wege introduces bill to allow wells for five years

— A pre-filed Senate bill could give rural residents temporary relief from the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision if it is signed into law.

Senate Bill 6091 was scheduled to be heard at 1:30 p.m. today in Senate Hearing Room No. 3 of the Cherberg Building on the capital campus.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, would allow property owners to drill new wells to supply a typical household.

Under the bill, counties would also have a five-year window to implement new watershed plans to protect water resources. Should counties be unable to draft those rules, the state would draft them.

The legislation would provide $200 million for mitigation and related efforts to restore and enhance stream flows and aquatic habitat, if approved.

“We want landowners to be able to develop their properties, just as landowners before them have done,” Van De Wege said. “But we need to make sure it’s done in ways that don’t violate the water rights of existing users or disrupt stream levels crucial to salmon and other fish.”

Van De Wege’s bill would provide temporary relief for rural landowners, but have been essentially denied the ability to drill because of the Hirst decision.

In that case, the state’s high court ruled 6-3 that Whatcom County failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells. The court further ruled that counties have to verify water is physically and legally available before allowing a well to be drilled.

The ruling sent shockwaves through rural Eastern Washington, essentially shutting down rural home construction.

Bills that cleared the Senate last year to correct the ruling were blocked by House Democrats.

As a result last legislative session, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus held up approval of a state capital budget until a Hirst fix was reached.

“Negotiating a solution that enables people to develop property without disrupting our state’s water balance is a historically complex challenge,” Van De Wege said. “This five-year window is intended to allow the time it will take to devise a solution that balances everyone’s needs fairly and reasonably.”


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