GOP pans Democrats’ Hirst plan

June 29, 2017
By Don Jenkins

A new proposal by House Democrats to allow new wells in rural areas gets a chilly response from Republican senators and the Farm Bureau

Honeyford, the Senate’s capital budget chairman, said he will reappropriate funds for previously approved projects, but won’t add new projects to the capital improvement plan unless the House yields and allows wells.

“This one is important to rural Washington. We have to play hardball,” Honeyford said,
The court’s majority in October ruled that new wells threaten stream flows needed for fish, even in watersheds where the state Department of Ecology permits them. The statewide implications remain uncertain, though builders, real estate agents and counties say the ruling imposes a heavy burden on landowners to prove their new well won’t deprive fish of water.

The Republican-led Senate has passed a bill to nullify Hirst. House Democrats have proposed new fees and government programs to mitigate for the water drawn by new wells.

With the Legislature in its third 30-day overtime session, House Democrats on Wednesday introduced the bill to suspend Hirst and appoint a task force to develop recommendations. House leaders immediately sent House Bill 2239 to the floor, bypassing committee hearings.

“This is clearly a difficult and very complicated issue,” said Bothell Democrat Derek Stanford, the bill’s prime sponsor. “We think (HB 2239) gives relief to people who are stuck now.”

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake said that HB 2239 could be a last resort.

“I still remain hopeful that we can come to an agreement on a total fix, but at some point the House may send it over and say, ‘Let people build,’” he said. “I want to see people build. ... Folks are going to have to compromise, and it’s a struggle.”

The state Farm Bureau has been among the Hirst decision’s harshest critics, calling it a threat to the future of farm families. The organization’s associate director of government relations, Evan Sheffels, said the House’s new proposal could be worse than doing nothing. The bill implies the Hirst ruling will go into effect statewide after 18 months if the Legislature doesn’t act, he said.

“It could mean that come 2019, Happy New Year! No one can build anymore,” Sheffels said.

“We think it’s a political ploy,” he said. “House Democrats want to pass something to make it look like they did something.”

Besides lawmakers, the task force would include representatives from tribes, state agencies, environmental groups and builders.

“I think this gives us all breathing room,” said Bryce Yadon, policy director for Futurewise, the environmental group that won the Hirst case.

Honeyford said the task force would be weighted in favor of groups and agencies that support restricting rural development. “I feel like it’s stacked against rural Washington,” he said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick said that she’s continuing to work on Hirst legislation and questioned the legality of just suspending a Supreme Court ruling.

“We’re not negotiating on the House bill. I don’t believe there’s anything I can support in it,” she said.

A Warnick-sponsored bill would permanently repeal the Hirst decision. She said the Senate may accept imposing a $300 fee on new wells to fund stream-enhancement projects.

“That’s a tough one,” she said. “That’s a big move on our part.”

The capital budget, which pays for state construction projects, is separate from the operating budget. State government faces a partial shutdown if it doesn’t pass an operating budget by Friday.

The capital budget is popular with lawmakers, who tout the funding they get for building projects in their districts. The budget also funds new government and school buildings and is the repository for a host of projects sought by interest groups. The capital budget often receives unanimous bipartisan support.

“I think it’s a real threat,” Blake said. “The capital budget is very critical for the state.”