Lawmakers approve water deal, public-works budget

State capital budget funds Pasco Early Learning Center, College Place water, and other local public-works projects

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers reached agreement Thursday on a bill that will permit rural property owners to resume drilling household wells, ending a year-long impasse that had delayed approval of the Legislature’s $4 billion public-works construction budget.

Projects funded by the capital budget in the 16th District include the Pasco Early Learning Center, a new well for the city of College Place, and construction of new homes by Habitat for Humanity in Pasco.

The water and capital-budget bills cleared the Legislature Thursday night and were expected to be quickly signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“The compromise on Hirst is a fragile agreement,” said state Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla. “Like most political compromises, our solution to the rural water crisis is imperfect as it places unnecessary restrictions and costs on rural property owners.  But after months of negotiations, it is the best deal we are likely to strike this year, and we need to act quickly.  For thousands of rural property owners, no legislation would mean no water.

“Meanwhile, passage of the capital budget is crucial to communities across the state, including Southeast Washington. The fact we were finally able to resolve these issues during the second week of our legislative session should come as a relief to rural property owners, to anyone with a public-works project at stake, and to all of us in the Legislature who have been seeking a solution for so long.”

The Legislature’s wrangle over the well-water issue was prompted by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. The Hirst decision imposed near-impossible requirements on rural property owners seeking permits for new construction, and required county planning departments to determine whether ground water was available for new wells. Development already has come to a standstill in some areas of the state.

The Legislature’s Hirst fix imposes new watershed planning requirements and places new restrictions on water usage that vary by watershed. The new rules give a green light to new wells and construction in areas where city water does not reach, and will prevent a collapse of property values estimated by one study to be $37 billion.

Passage of the water bill paved the way for passage of the capital budget, which had been delayed a year as Republican lawmakers insisted Hirst came first. Both parties have a say in the capital budget because it is funded by long-term bonds, requiring a 60 percent of the House and Senate. Because the capital budget funds projects statewide, it is of importance to lawmakers from every region, providing an incentive for urban lawmakers to compromise on the water issue.

Projects funded by the capital budget in the 16th Legislative District include:

  • $1 million for the Pasco Early Learning Center. State money will help convert the old Pasco Senior Center into a preschool facility, providing classrooms for 200 children before they enter kindergarten.
  • $900,000 for the City of College Place, to help build a new well to replace failing wells serving the city’s water system.
  • $1.5 million for Tri-County Habitat for Humanity, to build new homes in its Whitehouse Addition in Pasco.
  • $300,000 for restoration of the Naval Air Station Pasco control tower for use as a future aviation museum.
  • $335,000 for acquisition of the GESA Power House Theater in Walla Walla by a local non-profit organization. Money comes from the Department of Commerce Building for the Arts grant program.
  • $90,000 for foundation and exterior repairs at the Kirkman House Museum in Walla Walla.
  • $114,000 for rehabilitation of the Princess Theater in Prosser.
  • $318,000 for cleanup of the Schwerin Concaves site in Walla Walla.
  • $1.5 million for flood plain planning at the Wooten Wildlife Area.
  • $4.6 million for repairs and maintenance at 16th District community college facilities.

The capital budget also provides loans totaling $7 million to the city of Walla Walla for improvements to Isaacs Avenue and the Sudbury Landfill.