By John Stark
In an opinion column published here today in print and online, State Rep. Vincent Buys, R-42nd, blames partisan politics for the likely death of a water rights bill he sponsored, H.B. 1438. But information available online indicates that the bill received very mixed reviews in committee, encountering misgivings and/or opposition from the Department of Ecology, Indian tribes, environmental groups and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
Water rights law is not for the faint of heart. The bill seems to be an attempt to help some local farmers get their current water use practices in compliance with the law. It is complicated.
Here’s the bill summary: “Creates a new, temporary process for certain water users located in the Nooksack watershed who have transitioned to a more efficient irrigation technology to change their place of water use with the Department of Ecology.”
The summary also notes that the original version the bill was applicable statewide, but a substitute version was limited to the Nooksack watershed.
Here is a news report on the bill from the Capital Press, an agriculture news service. According to this account, the farmers who would benefit have installed water conservation measures without doing all the required water rights paperwork with the Department of Ecology, and the bill would help them fix that retroactively.
The State Legislature’s online information contains this bill report prepared by House staff, summarizing the public testimony before the Natural Resources Committee.
To summarize the summary, the following people expressed concerns, but not outright opposition:
Maia Bellon, Department of Ecology; Jack Field, Washington Cattlemen’s Association; Bruce Wishart, Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Sierra Club; andMiguel Perez-Gibson, Colville Tribes.
Here’s how the report summarizes those concerns: “The bill would be easier to support as a pilot project since there is a need to ensure that other water users are not being negatively impacted. The Department (of Ecology) currently has a de facto changes policy that is designed to address just this issue. It is a bad precedent to provide amnesty for a water user who makes a change without following the proper legal steps.”
Opponents: Darcy Nonemacher, Washington Environmental Council; Dawn Vyvyan, Yakama
Nation and Puyallup Tribe; and Steve Robinson, Tulalip and Umatilla Tribes.
Their reasons for opposing the bill: “It is very complicated to account for senior water right holders and instream flow effects when one goes back in time and changes a decision point. This increase in confusion is a negative outcome. The bill is too vague to be predictable and the Department needs more of a role in reviewing the changes. People should not be able to implement a change in water uses without asking permission first.”
My footnote: The tribes–with good reason–consider themselves “senior water rights holders,” and have been in a long and largely fruitless negotiation with agriculture users over maintaining sufficient flow in local streams to maintain salmon populations. Although Whatcom County’s two tribes (Lummi and Nooksack) do not appear to have participated in the public hearing on Buys’s bill, it looks like other tribes are leery of any tinkering with state water rights laws while these issues are unresolved.