Legislative approval was linked to action on Hirst decision

By Marcy Stamper and Ann McCreary

Forest thinning, tree planting, and a new civic building and sports complex in Twisp can finally get moving again with the adoption last week of a capital budget by the state Legislature.

The $4-billion budget for construction and forest-health projects around the state was sidelined last year in a political stand-off in the Legislature over water for rural developments.

Now that the budget is passed, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) gets $1 million for reforestation of areas burned in the Carlton Complex and Okanogan Complex fires, said Joe Smilie, a DNR spokesperson.

DNR also received $10.3 million to reduce hazardous fuels and establish Firewise communities around the state. DNR is still determining which areas are the highest priorities for treatment, but prescribed burning and thinning on 5,500 acres near Wauconda are on the list, said Smilie.

Because the capital budget was initially expected by the end of the biennium last June, planning for forest projects was delayed and it’s not clear if they’ll be able to start work this year, said Smilie.

“We had to be creative to find other projects for staff funded by the capital budget. We didn’t want to lose their background knowledge and expertise,” said Smilie. Now that the money has been allocated, they’ve shifted them back to their forest-health jobs where they can resume planning, he said.

Okanogan County got word that a two-year, $118,000 grant for recycling and household hazardous waste funded by the capital budget has come through, said Ben Rough, administrative officer for the county’s Public Works Department.

The county had already been anticipating a 30-percent cut in funding, which would have provided $70,000 a year toward the total $300,000 annual cost of the two programs, so the grant, while helpful, is less than expected, he said.

Twisp

Two projects in Twisp that were held up during the capital budget impasse last year have also received funding that allows them to move forward. The budget provides $750,000 for a new civic building planned by the Town of Twisp, the third state appropriation for that project since 2015.

“This is becoming reality and it’s really exciting,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who has been a strong advocate for construction of a new building that will serve as town administrative offices and police headquarters, and as an emergency operations center for the entire valley.

The town was allocated $500,000 in both the 2015 and 2016 capital budgets for the project, which is estimated to cost about $3 million in all. Twisp has submitted a grant application of $1 million for the project through U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development programs. If that grant is awarded, the town may be able to begin construction this year, Ing-Moody said. “We’re getting really close,” she said.

The civic building will replace the current town hall building on Glover Street, which has numerous structural and functional deficiencies. In the wake of wildfires in 2014 and 2015, Twisp officials decided that a new building should also house emergency operations in future disasters. The current town hall would be demolished and replaced by the new civic building at the same location.

Another Twisp project, renovation of sports fields near the Twisp Municipal Airport, received a $250,000 Washington Wildlife Recreation Grant under the capital budget. Ing-Moody said an additional $250,000 for the project is expected to be received through the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

The money would be used for the first phase of a larger project to create a sports complex at the 10-acre site, including two baseball/softball fields, two soccer fields, restrooms and a concession stand, parking, pathways and play areas.

The first phase of the project will re-orient and renovate a baseball field and a soccer field to eliminate overlap and allow both sports to be played at the same time. Currently, only one sport can be played at a time. Irrigation for the fields would also be installed.

Hirst fallout

Money for these projects was held up last year when House Republicans refused to pass the capital budget when they didn’t get a chance to vote on a Senate bill that they hoped would address a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling on water for rural development. The “Hirst” decision required property owners who want to use a well to supply water for a house to first prove there is enough water — and that they have the right to use it.

Okanogan County, like many across the state, has been grappling with the Hirst ruling. After a hiatus in issuing new building permits, the county adopted a process to assess how much water is available to help show that new water use won’t impair those with senior water rights, which includes water in rivers for fish.

After the Legislature reconvened this year, it passed a law to address some concerns about Hirst. The law creates watershed-restoration and enhancement plans, sets up pilot projects to measure water use from new wells, and reviews surface- and groundwater appropriations for their impact on instream flows and fish habitat.

Rep. Cary Condotta (R-Wenatchee) said the new legislation would clear up some of the uncertainty and doubt surrounding Hirst, including $300 million allocated in the capital budget for instream flow and watershed-planning projects over 15 years. Condotta also hailed a requirement for the Department of Ecology to create charts to assist county planners.

While the legislation provided enough progress on wells to allow the capital budget to move forward, it generated criticism from water-conservation groups. The Center for Environmental Law & Policy said the new provisions would have dire consequences for endangered salmon and don’t provide necessary mitigations for water use in areas with limited supplies.