At long last, a resolution to the rural-well crisis

The following newsletter was sent to Sen. Maureen Walsh’s subscribers Jan. 25, 2018. To subscribe to Sen. Walsh’s Report From Olympia, click here.

Legislature’s solution allows well-drilling to resume, prevents collapse of rural land values

Dear friends and neighbors,

Sometimes it seems the Legislature moves at a glacial pace, but when lawmakers manage to agree on something, everything comes together fast.

We got a taste of that last week when Republicans and Democrats finally reached agreement on a bill that preserves the ability of rural property owners to drill new wells for household use. This was one of the most contentious debates we have seen in the Legislature in recent years. Resistance was so strong that Republicans were forced to delay approval of the state public-works construction budget for a full year to ensure rural areas would have a seat at the table during water policy negotiations.

But once compromise was reached, everything fell into place quickly, and we passed both a water bill and a capital budget in short order. It was a victory for the thousands of rural families who faced ruin for lack of water, for the taxpayers across the state who would have had to assume the burden created by plummeting property values, and for everyone with something at stake in the capital budget. And it was a major relief for those of us who serve in the Legislature and had hoped we would find our way to a solution.

The wrangle over water was prompted by a lawsuit from environmental groups and a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in their favor. The court’s Hirst decision, based on technical reasoning, tossed out decades of water law that made it easy for rural property owners to drill modestly-sized wells for their homes and gardens. Water supply wasn’t the issue — instead it was the long-running effort by environmental groups to restrict rural development, which they see as urban sprawl.

Hirst was a first-class disaster in the making. Those of us who live in Southeastern Washington understand the importance of wells in areas city water does not reach. No water means no development. Yet the Hirst decision imposed cumbersome and costly requirements for rural property owners, requiring them to pay for costly water studies to prove they would not impact water supply. Even that would be no guarantee of approval.

The court’s ruling also required counties to determine whether water supply is adequate. In the past, that role has been played by the state Department of Ecology, which is better suited for the task. Some county governments simply stopped issuing building permits for new projects requiring wells. Development in many areas came to a standstill. Without action by the Legislature, one study indicated we could expect property values to decline statewide by $37 billion – and other taxpayers would have had to pay higher property taxes to make up for the loss.

The Hirst compromise was a fragile agreement. Like most political compromises, our solution to the rural water crisis is imperfect, as it places unnecessary restrictions and costs on rural property owners. The final deal also requires watershed planning of the sort we already have seen in Walla Walla County. After months of negotiations, it was clear this was the best deal we were likely to strike this year, and we needed to act quickly to prevent the collapse of our rural economy.

At the same time, agreement on Hirst allowed us to move forward with the capital budget. This budget funds important projects across the state. For us, it means money for the Pasco Early Learning Center, restoration of the Princess Theater in Prosser, urgent repairs to the failing water system in College Place – and a host of other projects.

Certainly the process was messy, and resolution took far longer than it should have. But we got the job done, and we’re glad to see the governor fulfilled his promise to sign the Hirst and capital budget bills.


Public works budget brings important projects to 16th District

Funds Pasco Early Learning Center, College Place water, and other local public-works projects

Projects funded by the capital budget include remodeling of the Pasco Senior Center into an early learning center for the Pasco School District.

Passage of the Hirst bill ended an impasse that delayed passage of the state capital budget for a year. This is good news not just for the 16th District, but for all of Washington. This budget funds projects in every district of the state, urban and rural.

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.

If you have questions about bills being considered by the Legislature, or general questions about state government, I encourage you to get in touch with me. You can do so using the contact information below.

I look forward to hearing from you.




Maureen Walsh