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Water law changes trickle forward

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 11, 2018, 9:35 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Changes to state water law that could allow work to resume on stalled housing projects in rural and suburban areas inched forward Thursday as a Senate committee approved the latest version of what’s informally known as a “Hirst fix.”

On a 5-0 vote, the Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that would allow new wells to receive permits in some areas that have adequate water supplies and create a process to determine if other watershed areas can meet state Ecology Department standards before permits are issued.

“This has been a long process to get here,” Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said. “Primarily this is about just the simple people that were here to talk about wanting a well for their home.”

If it passes, the proposal would allow many rural and suburban landowners to get water for homes they want to build, and give counties some certainty that would allow them to issue building permits, she said.

In some cases, new wells could be limited to 950 gallons per day for domestic use, which could be reduced to 350 gallons per day in a drought emergency.

Residential development in some parts of the state has been put on hold for the last year after a state Supreme Court ruling, known as the Hirst decision, said local governments needed to do more to ensure that water supplies are adequate that new wells won’t harm current water users.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said the Legislature still has work to do on the issue. The bill the committee approved Thursday must go to the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the budget, and then on to the full Senate. A competing bill could be heard next Monday in the Senate and the House is still working on its version of a Hirst fix.

Republicans leaders in both chambers say the Legislature must approve a change in water law before they’ll vote for the bonds for the proposed $4.3 billion capital construction budget. The House had scheduled a vote on that budget for Thursday morning, but Democrats delayed the vote at the request of House Republican leaders.

Committee Chairman Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said Thursday’s action did represent an important milestone on the issue: “This is the first time there’s been a bipartisan agreement on Hirst.”

Last session, Republicans who controlled the Senate repeatedly passed a bill written by Warnick, sending it to the Democrat-controlled House which was unable to settle on legislation of its own and didn’t agree with the Warnick bill.