Dear Friends and Neighbors,
After extensive negotiations through the interim and into the first couple weeks of session, the Legislature passed and the governor signed Senate Bill 6091, which finally resolved the Hirst decision.
For those unfamiliar, up until 2016, rural landowners could drill a well on their property and withdraw up to 5,000 gallons of water per day for “domestic” (as opposed to commercial or agricultural) uses. These wells are known as “exempt wells,” because the Department of Ecology considered their impact on the surrounding water basin so minimal that the wells were exempt from more comprehensive regulations. In 2016, the Washington Supreme Court issued the Hirst decision, which held that landowners could no longer rely on Ecology’s approach, and instead must prove a well would have minimal effects on the entire water basin before it could be drilled.
This had the effect of shutting down rural development in virtually every county in the state. But it wasn’t just rural property owners building a new house who were impacted. All rural residents were threatened by the possibility that courts, after ruling new wells couldn’t be drilled, might also rule that existing wells were illegal too. And because of our complex property tax structure, as rural land values plummeted (which happens when there is no access to water), the property tax burden would have shifted heavily from rural to urban residents. In short, Hirst was about much more than water – it was about property rights, livelihoods and our economy. It was critical we reached an agreement to avoid plunging property values and economic uncertainty.
Senate Bill 6091 essentially overturns most of the Hirst decision, but it means different things to different parts of the state, because it establishes different rules for each watershed around the state. Here’s how the bill affects the Green-Duwamish and Puyallup-White watersheds in our legislative district:
- All existing wells are grandfathered in, as well as a legally-adequate water supply to obtain a building permit throughout the state.
- New wells drilled in these watersheds are limited to an average annual withdrawal of 950 gallons per day.
- No metering is required for either existing wells or new wells.
- The court-imposed mandate on counties to find legal, available water is eliminated. This would have been a huge burden, especially for small counties with limited resources and funds.
- A $300 million fund for water projects is created, with a goal of restoring salmon runs by addressing stream-flow issues.
Unfortunately, the bill does impose additional fees on new wells. However, it is a solution that provides the ability for our rural landowners to develop their properties and access water, and ensures important water rights across the state. If you have any questions about this bill, let my office know.