“UPDATED Information on the Newly Signed Bill to Fix the Hirst Crisis

With a stroke of a pen, Gov. Inslee signed Senate Bill 6091 into law only hours after it was passed by the Legislature. Even the staunchest supporters of the legislation acknowledge it is not a perfect bill, but it is a good bill for Washington’s farm and ranch families.

True Hirst Fix. SB 6091 provides a clear path to county building permit approvals for new homes for family members who want to come home to the farm, and for farm worker housing. It means that the property of the state’s rural landowners will no longer be devalued and dewatered due to the crisis created by the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision.

Homes Only. Another key point is the bill focuses only on homes (the subject of Hirst). This is important. The measure does not restrict other permit exempt uses for livestock, industrial, and noncommercial lawns and gardens currently allowed in state law under RCW 90.44.050.

No Metering. The bill does not require metering. It does, however, call for pilot projects to study costs and benefits of metering versus estimating the consumptive use impact of small ground water withdrawals. The pilots will be in two water bank areas that already have metering: the Upper Yakima watershed in Kittitas County, and the Dungeness watershed in Clallam County.

42 “Green Light” WRIAs. Our state has 62 watersheds, which are also referred to as Water Resource Inventory Areas or WRIAs. Under the bill 42 get a full green light to build homes as they could before the Hirst decision. In those 42 watersheds, there are no new fee requirements, no restrictions on how many gallons per day can be withdrawn, and no requirement for new rule makings.

32 of these “green light” WRIAs currently have no instream flow rules. About two-thirds of these “no rule” watersheds are in eastern Washington and about one-third are in western Washington. In all of these areas county permit decisions can rely on the 5,000 gallons per day ground water permit exemption for domestic use allowed in state law under RCW 90.44.050.

10 of these “green light” WRIAs have rules that expressly regulate groundwater. Counties with these rules (mostly post-2001 rules plus one pre-2001 rule in the Methow) can rely on those rules to issue building permits as they did before Hirst. These include (Watershed name-WRIA #): Stilliguamish-5; Quilcene-Snow-17; Elwha-Dungeness-18; Lewis-27; Salmon-Washougal-28; Walla Walla-32; Wenatchee-45; Entiat-64; Methow-48; and Middle Spokane-57.

15 “Fee and Limit” WRIAS. The bill also gives green lights to build homes in 15 watersheds with older (pre-2001) instream flow rules. In those 15 watersheds, there is a new fee and withdrawal limits. These watersheds, with rules similar to the Nooksack rule attacked in Hirst, were at greatest risk of building permit moratoriums if good legislation wasn’t enacted.

Priority Funding. $300 million is provided ($20 million per year for 15 years). First-priority for funding goes to projects that support watershed improvement processes in the 15 “fee and limit” WRIAs, as described below.

Watershed Plan WRIAs. Seven of the 15 “old rule” (pre-2001) watersheds have watershed plans that were approved under the state’s watershed planning statutes (chapter 90.82 RCW). Those seven are: Nooksack-1; Nisqually-11; Lower Chehalis-22; Upper Chehalis-23; Okanogan-49; Little Spokane-55; and Colville-59. In those areas people can get a building permit for 3,000 average annual gallons per day for a $500 one-time fee. Existing watershed planning groups, which include local Ag representation, will update their watershed plans, recommend and implement projects, and recommend rule updates as needed to deliver good watershed outcomes on a 20-year horizon.

Watershed Committee WRIAs. Eight of the 15 “old rule” watersheds did not get watershed plans approved under the state’s watershed planning statutes. Those eight include: Snohomish-7; Cedar-Sammamish-8; Duwamish-Green-9; Puyallup-White-10; Chambers-Clover-12; Deschutes-13; Kennedy-Goldsborough-14; Kitsap-15. In those areas people can get a home building permit for a $500 one-time fee for 950 average annual gallons per day (potentially reduced to 350 gallons per day during a declared drought). Stormwater management conditions also apply. A new process is established in these WRIAs for Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Committees (WRECs), which include a local agricultural representative. These WRECs will develop plans, implement projects, and make recommendations for rule revisions needed to deliver good watershed outcomes on a 20-year horizon.”

5 Areas Not Addressed. The bill did not address watershed areas with federal flow regulations or controlling court decisions entered prior to the Hirst decision. Those watersheds include: Upper Skagit-3; Lower Skagit-Samish-4; Lower Yakima-37; Naches-38; and Upper Yakima-39.
Foster Task Force. Another encouraging piece of the legislation is that it authorizes five pilot projects to test solutions to the state Supreme Court’s Foster decision. It also creates a task force, which includes agricultural representation, to recommend sideboards for adequate protection of water rights and instream flows when approving transfers of seasonal agricultural water rights to year-round water uses.