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Proposed bill would alter important state water laws, threaten our children’s future

posted Jun 9, 2017, 3:49 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Jun 12, 2017, 2:56 PM by Hannah Coughlin ]
In March, Republican State Senator Judy Warnick proposed a dangerous bill in the Washington State Legislature that would change state law — laws present to protect existing water rights and ensure water resources are being shared. Proponents of Senate Bill 5239 want to pass legislation allowing developers to drill new wells that will take away water from someone else with an existing water right — including tribes, farms, and homeowners with wells.

SB 5239 is a back-door fix to get around a State Supreme Court ruling that determined Whatcom County needed to get its act together and figure out how much water is being used and how much water is available, before granting carte blanche permission to dig private wells for rural development. The court ruled that counties are required to ensure water is available before approving permits for new rural development — a reasonable and perhaps obvious conclusion. 

What would SB 5239 do?

We need a balanced solution that works for all, and takes into consideration the complexity of the problem. SB 5239 is an all-or-nothing bill that does not actually solve any of Whatcom County's water shortage issues, and will exacerbate the problem. If SB 5239 becomes law:
  • The state will move the burden of this work away from counties to an underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened Department of Ecology — a sure way to sweep the problem under the carpet. 
  • Counties approving permits for new development would not need to consider whether granting the permit would reduce water supply and impair existing water rights.
  • The door would be flung open to urban sprawl, with little review of impacts on existing water right holders — including tribes, farms, existing wells, and water in streams for fish.

Tell your legislators we need a balanced, long-lasting solution

Currently, SB 5239 is being used as a bargaining chip. Proponents of the bill are holding funding for education and toxic cleanups hostage, and threatening not to come to a compromise if SB 5239 is not passed. This would all but ensure a government shutdown.

Your senator and representatives need to hear from you. They need to hear that you don’t support SB 5239 being used as an all-or-nothing bargaining chip — we need a balanced, compromised solution that supports property owners, tribes, farmers, and salmon.

Tell your legislators to vote no on SB 5239 and to instead work toward a middle-of-the-road solution requiring the Department of Ecology to provide expertise to counties to help them focus on cost-effective ways to offset the impacts of water use from rural wells through a process called mitigation. Mitigation options could include:
  • Increasing water-use efficiency;
  • Limiting outdoor water use in the summer;
  • Creating water banks and markets;
  • Extending water service from existing water associations and districts; and many more.
Lastly, the Department of Ecology must have adequate funding in order to help counties craft and implement mitigation options. The legislature must allocate sufficient funding.

Water laws must be scaled to our water problems

It may not always seem like it, especially after the abundance of wet weather we experienced this winter and spring — but Whatcom County faces serious challenges with the availability of water. Here are just some of the challenges:
  • There is not enough water in streams to support salmon spawning — which in turn support our Pacific Northwest food chain. Salmon returns have been steadily declining year after year.
  • In 2015, we experienced a serious statewide drought. The severity and frequency of drought is likely to increase as a result of climate change, and we currently have no plans in place for dealing with these changes. 

  • With Whatcom County’s population expected to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years, it is critically important that we develop a plan to ensure our children have enough water for a healthy future — instead of a future of water shortages, failing crops, and county-wide water rights battles.

How you can help

Contacting your legislators by phone is by far the most productive and impactful form of communication. Read more in the New York Times article "Here's why you should call, not email, your legislators."

Sample script

Hi, my name is [insert name] and I live in [insert city], which is in the [insert legislative district].

I'm calling to urge Senator/Representative [insert name] to find a middle-ground solution to the Washington State Supreme Court's decision on rural wells. We CAN have new single-family homes in rural areas using wells without impacting senior water rights and salmon. This isn't an either-or issue.

Any solution must require the Department of Ecology and counties to offset water use by new rural wells through mitigation. The Department of Ecology also must have sufficient funding to support this work.

Thank you for considering my views on this important topic.