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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County Commission creates ‘water bank’ to buy and sell water rights in response to Hirst decision

UPDATED: Tue., April 11, 2017

The Little Spokane River flows under Rutter Parkway north of Spokane Thursday, May 1, 2015 near Indian Rocks. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Little Spokane River flows under Rutter Parkway north of Spokane Thursday, May 1, 2015 near Indian Rocks. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County commissioners on Tuesday allocated more than $1.2 million for the creation of a “water bank,” from which the county would be able to buy and sell water rights – potentially relieving some problems created by a state Supreme Court decision last year.

The commissioners unanimously approved the funds after roughly an hour of heated testimony from city residents and rural landowners. Commissioner Al French and the county’s water resources manager, Mike Hermanson, spent much of the hearing trying to dispel misconceptions about the proposed water bank, prompting one woman in attendance to exclaim, “That’s a lie!”

It was only the latest public hearing that the commissioners have held in recent months as they grapple with the impact of the Supreme Court’s controversial Hirst decision, which requires landowners to show they have an adequate water supply in order to obtain building permits.

Shortly after the ruling took effect last fall, the county commissioners approved an ordinance that they say makes it a little easier to approve building permits under the new legal circumstances. State lawmakers are seeking a bipartisan fix.

With the new water bank, the county will be able to buy water rights from property owners willing to sell them. The county can turn around and sell those water rights to property owners who need them.

During Tuesday’s hearing, French sought to ensure residents that they would not be required to sell their water rights to the county. All three commissioners said the water bank would protect the rights of citizens who live on the Little Spokane Watershed, where state environmental rules have made it nearly impossible to obtain a new water right.

The watershed encompasses the northern part of the county as well as parts of Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Commissioner Josh Kerns said residents there need an equitable way to distribute water rights in order to build homes. Their next best option is to truck in water to fill cisterns, he said.

“This is not a government takeover,” he said. “This is not a huge government water resource grab.”

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn noted that commissioners have been working on the water bank for several years to address the watershed issue. The Hirst decision only intensified the need for it, commissioners said.

Hermanson, the water resources manager, said the water bank would work in conjunction with the two counties to the north and would prevent water rights from being sold downstream, such as in Walla Walla.

In supporting the Hirst decision, members of the environmental group FutureWise, which participated in the litigation, have have cited a 2013 story by The Spokesman-Review about declining water tables in some areas of Spokane County.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Cindy Zapotocky, a former chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party, called the water bank a waste of money. She and others called the Hirst decision “illegal.”

“If somebody wants to challenge the Supreme Court decision,” French told those in attendance, “be my guest. Do it.”

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