OLYMPIA — The Senate agriculture committee today, the first day of the 2018 session, will hear a Democratic plan to spend at least $200 million over 10 years for fish projects in exchange for allowing new wells in rural areas.
A nearly identical plan was floated a month ago by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration. It received a cool reception by Republicans then and probably will again if unchanged, said Yakima County Rep. David Taylor, the House Republicans lead negotiator on the issue.
“The governor’s proposal actually created many more problems than it solved,” Taylor said Thursday.
The Democratic proposal responds to the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision. The court ruled landowners must show that their wells won’t deprive fish of water. The decision, which stemmed from environmentalists challenging a Whatcom County policy, has stopped building in some counties.
Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree in 2017 on legislation to resume rural development. Senate Republicans made the issue a priority and focused Democrats’ attention by withholding needed votes for a $4 billion capital budget.
Although Democrats now control the Senate, as well as the House, Republican retain enough seats to block a bond bill to fund the budget. Democrats accuse Republicans of political gamesmanship.
“We caught a lot of flak on the capital budget,” Taylor said. “My response has been that the capital budget is very important and so is Hirst to my constituents. If we had passed the capital budget, would we be talking about Hirst on the first day of the session? I don’t think we would be.”
At a press event Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee cited low-income housing in the capital budget as a reason to not wait any longer to pass the spending plan. He dismissed the dispute as “a beef.”
“People are now camped out on the side of the road. Mothers living in the back of an old Buick with two or three kids. They need a capital budget. And that’s why I’m urging the legislators as the first order of business to get that job done. It is not acceptable not to take care of homeless people because you got some other beef going on here in Olympia,” he said.
Before the Hirst ruling, rural wells were mostly allowed because they cumulatively consume about 1 percent of the water supply. In the future, Democrats are proposing that fish-restoration plans more than offset the potential affect of new wells.
Under their proposal, the Department of Ecology, Department of Fish and Wildlife, tribes, counties and cities would develop watershed plans. The committees could set fees for wells and cap daily consumption.
Taylor said the watershed committees should have more than government officials.
“We also need agricultural interests, the building community, irrigation districts,” he said.
Taylor said his other concerns include increasing the state debt by borrowing the $200 million for fish projects. A proposed $1,500 fee on new wells would raise the cost of housing, and new caps on daily consumption would leave Eastern Washington residents unable to water vegetation to protect homes from wildfires, he said.
The plan scheduled to be heard Monday would limit withdrawals from new domestic and commercial wells to 400 gallons a day. The proposal presented in December set the limit at 350 gallons. The current limit is 5,000 gallons.