Accountability Matters for Water and Treaty Rights

by Lorraine Loomis

Lorraine Loomis

Lorraine Loomis

Do you make sure you have enough money in your bank account before writing a check for a big purchase?

Of course. That’s what responsible people do to avoid trouble down the road.

You would think that kind of common-sense thinking would be supported by bankers, builders and real estate companies. But it’s a different story when it comes to water supply in rural areas of western Washington.

The development community wants to overturn a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling in Whatcom County v. Hirst that rightly upheld existing state law under the Growth Management Act. The act simply requires counties to ensure that their land-use management actions protect ground and surface waters. That means local governments need to determine whether there is enough water available for new development before issuing building permits.

Instead, developers want to continue relying on a broken system managed by the state Department of Ecology. For decades it has allowed thousands of rural property owners to sink wells that can withdraw up to 5,000 gallons of water each day with no review of the potential impact on stream flows and senior water rights. Groundwater and surface water are connected, so even though wells may be withdrawing groundwater, they affect stream flows as well.

Exempt wells don’t require a permit and don’t have meters, so there is no accountability and no way to determine just how much water is being withdrawn. This approach to water management ignores instream flow rules and the senior water rights of cities, farmers and treaty tribes. As a result, the system fails to protect the groundwater needed for drinking, farming and fish.

After the Hirst ruling, some counties wisely pushed the pause button on issuing building permits in rural areas. It makes sense for local governments to wait while they fine-tune their development review processes to make sure that new property owners can be certain there’s enough water to go around before they build. It would be irresponsible to allow unregulated wells to continue pumping water with no legal right or accountability. It’s like writing a bad check on purpose, but with far worse consequences.

The Hirst ruling doesn’t mean that no more wells can ever be dug in rural areas. It means that we must act responsibly beforehand. It means we must ignore the false alarms from bankers, builders and real estate companies that the ruling is hampering economic growth in rural areas. Instead we should see this as an opportunity to encourage responsible growth by checking our account before we plunge into a purchase.

New development can certainly occur in watersheds with adequate water resources to accommodate it. In those without, more water can be made available by retiring senior water rights, conserving existing supplies and using reclaimed water, among other solutions. “Water banks” can provide a solution in some watersheds by enabling counties to buy and sell water rights to help offset short supplies.

Because every watershed in our region is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Accurate water inventories must be conducted in each watershed before any allocation decisions are made, and tribes need to be involved to ensure that their rights and resources are protected.

Unfortunately, those with the most to gain from unchecked development are demanding that the state Legislature overturn or “fix” the Hirst ruling, to go back to unchecked impacts on water resources. They want the Legislature to develop a water management system that allows local governments and citizens to keep writing checks without first reviewing their bank accounts to see if these investments are sustainable. This approach could impact everybody: senior water rights holders, future generations and salmon.

That’s not right.

We can’t drink money, we can’t water crops with it, and salmon sure can’t swim in it.

Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission,

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