Local legislators have been trying to prevent water from being transferred out of Okanogan County, where it would be permanently lost to downstream uses.
Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12th District) has proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 6494 that would temporarily prohibit transfers of water from the Methow and Okanogan watersheds until a state Department of Ecology study group completes its work later this year.
Hawkins’ amendment would require Ecology to convene a work group of affected entities to study the design and use of the state water trust, water banking, and the water-transfer process and to present its findings and recommendations to the Joint Legislative Task Force on Water Resource Mitigation.
Hawkins’ amendment would also eliminate some changes to the Trust Water Rights Program proposed in the original bill.
Transfers into water banks have attracted attention because of concern that water banks could be used by speculators and investment firms, not by farmers and ranchers. Some firms have sought to transfer water rights to boost production on formerly dryland farms around the state.
SB 6494 was sent to the Senate Rules Committee for a second reading earlier this month. The Rules Committee considers all bills and determines whether, and in what order, to schedule their consideration by the full Senate.
People testifying on the original version of SB 6494 hailed it for adding transparency to the water-banking process and for clarifying the difference between a donation and a transfer. They also said that requiring detailed information about the purpose of a water bank would be beneficial.
But others said the legislation left too much discretion to Ecology and made it harder to create water banks, impeding mitigation for water uses.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Keith Goehner (R-Dryden) that would have prohibited the transfer of water rights out of their original watershed — statewide — didn’t make it out of the Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources in the Washington House of Representatives. It would also have provided more local control of water banking.
Under the state’s water-rights system, Ecology applies a four-part test when deciding whether to issue or transfer a water right. Ecology must determine whether water is available, whether the use will be beneficial, whether granting the right would impair existing rights, and whether the proposed use would have a detrimental effect on the public interest.