The so-called Hirst decision has caused enough consternation, confusion and disruption all by itself. Now, Republicans in the state Senate have made things even worse by crassly seizing on the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hirst case as a political bargaining chip.
It’s bad politics, bad policy and an act of bad faith that could have consequences for a lot more people than were affected by Hirst.
Some background: Last October, the state Supreme Court ruled in a Whatcom County case that counties must ensure that water is available for new building sites without harming the senior water rights of others. The ruling has been applauded by may observers. At the same time, it altered the existing system under which state guidance on water availability was usually adequate, and put the burden on counties to assess individual applications in a more complex and potentially restrictive way.
The ruling sent counties scrambling to come up with ways to comply. Meanwhile, property owners were unable to obtain building permits until the water rights primacy issue was addressed in their local jurisdictions. Counties were left with the expectation that they would comply with court’s ruling, without much guidance on how that should be done when resources are already stretched thin.
Such uncertainty is costly.
In Okanogan County, after a several-month-long hiatus in issuing building permits for houses that depend on a well for water, the county started reviewing applications after county officials held several hearings to gather information about how much water there really is available, based on well logs, hydrogeological studies and watershed plans.
“It’s a major conundrum that the Supreme Court dealt to us, instead of taking a thoughtful approach,” County Commissioner Andy Hover told the Methow Valley News in an earlier article.
Apparently, a “thoughtful approach” is a lot to ask for in the legislative branch as well. The state Legislature has staggered through three extra sessions to pass what appears to be a Frankenstein’s monster of a state budget, contorting revenue sources and expenditure plans to come up with some kind of response to the state’s educational funding crisis.
The House also approved a $4.2 billion capital spending budget that provides support for important infrastructure projects all over the state — including eastern Washington, where the Hirst decision has had a lopsided impact on some rural development. Those funds are much-needed in our communities. But the Senate adjourned with the capital budget held hostage by refusing to act on it, and some legislative leaders vowed not to revisit the capital budget until acceptable legislation is passed to modify or reverse the Hirst decision.
A bill that would largely restore the state’s water law to pre-Hirst conditions was approved in the Senate four times, but was not acted on by the House. A bill proposed by House Democrats would create a legislative task force to consider long-term responses, while allowing building permits to be issued in certain areas. The current extended session expires July 20, so theoretically there is time to reach consensus on action to address the worst affects of Hirst.
Any such effort has now been clouded by the Senate’s stubborn grandstanding. Some legislative leaders have tried to cast the Hirst decision, and their subsequent refusal to adopt the capital budget, as an urban-versus-rural showdown. That unnecessary divisiveness doesn’t help move anyone toward a solution.
The Hirst decision created an instant and insistent headache for county governments. It has been expensive for many property owners to deal with, and has raised complex questions in the already Byzantine arena of water rights. A legislative response seems appropriate.
The capital budget was approved by a 92-1 vote in the House, clearly demonstrating bipartisan support. Undermining that welcome agreement on priorities to ratchet up the profile of an unrelated policy dispute is manipulative politics at its worst. The Senate should do the right thing and approve the capital budget. Then, the House and Senate should both do the right thing to seriously address — and appropriately mitigate — the Hirst decision’s effects.