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OLYMPIA — A bill to reopen rural Washington to new wells unanimously passed the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, an unprecedented but tenuous bipartisan response to the Hirst court decision.
The committee’s lead Republican, Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick, said she expects the full Senate to vote on the legislation in the next few days.
“This is a necessary bill for the fishermen and all the people who want to live and work in rural areas,” she said.
Senate Bill 6091 proposes short-term regulations for new household wells. By mid-2021, rules drawn up by watershed panels would prevail in some basins. The plans would set limits on water withdrawals and authorize projects to more than offset water diverted from streams by new wells.
The bill responds to the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision. The court’s majority assumed new wells harm fish. The ruling halted or threatens to stop building in rural areas. Senate Republicans have focused attention on the issue by withholding votes for the $4 billion capital budget.
The Senate committee made significant changes to the bill that was presented at a public hearing Monday.
The changes include raising the amount of water that could be drawn from new wells to 950 gallons a day, up from the originally proposed 400 gallons. The limit would still be well below the current lid for domestic wells of 5,000 gallons. The bill would allow Ecology to limit withdrawals to 350 gallons a day during a drought.
The committee also lowered a new fee on wells to $500 from $1,500. The bill calls for spending $300 million on fish restoration projects by 2030. The bill originally proposed spending $200 million over 10 years.
Under the bill, 15 watershed committees, led by the Department of Ecology and made up of tribal and government officials, would be tasked with developing the post-2021 rules for each basin. The committees could raise or lower withdrawal limits.
The Senate committee on Thursday expanded the watershed panels to include representatives from irrigation districts, public water suppliers and the construction industry.
The state has more than 60 watersheds. Committees would be appointed in the watersheds that Ecology says are most affected by the Hirst decision. Republican lawmakers and environmentalists, though at odds on the issue, agree that the Hirst ruling potentially affects the entire state.
Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said the organization has yet to fully review the bill. “But the agreed language that moved out of the committee unanimously (Thursday) shows clear movement toward a better bill,” he said.
The House, also controlled by Democrats, will consider its own Hirst legislation. Tribes and environmental groups already were concerned the earlier version of the Senate bill wasn’t protective enough of streams or the Hirst decision.
Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, voted to advance the bill, but said it will need work before passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. His own Hirst bill, Senate Bill 6316, will have a hearing Monday in front of the Senate agriculture committee. He called it a “competing bill.” It would require metering of new wells and withdrawals limited to 350 gallons a day.
“This legislation has had a grueling two years, and there’s been a lot of movement, but we still have some work to do,” Mccoy said.
Bryce Yadon, policy director of the environmental group Futurewise, said the bill should ensure that the interim limit of 950 gallons a day doesn’t cause environmental harm.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the average person uses 80 to 100 gallons a day indoors. Some lawmakers and property owners say rural residents also need water for gardens, animals and to green up vegetation for fire protection.
“We respect and understand there has to be some level of watering for fire-prone communities,” Yadon said. “If you’re watering your lawn because you want a green lawn, that evaporates and doesn’t go back into the system.”