Small wells provoke big debate at the statehouse

Note: This op-ed appeared in the Dayton Chronicle and Prosser Record-Bulletin the third week of February.

By Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla

Education funding may be our top priority this year in the state Legislature, but an issue regarding small, household-sized wells seems to be generating plenty of steam.

A recent state Supreme Court decision has overturned more than 70 years of law and precedent that made it easy for rural property owners to drill small wells. Now landowners face enormous expenses for water studies. County governments are being told they must become experts in water use. Environmentalists and tribal interests are asking us to hold the line. Development in some areas has come to a standstill.

Right now, we are seeing one of those battles that often takes the Legislature by surprise.

The Legislature decided long ago that household wells ought to be exempt from the lengthy and cumbersome water rights review process. This is because these wells are limited to small amounts of water and are typically used for private, non-commercial purposes. Experts have determined that exempt wells account for less than one percent of the water used in Washington.

Last October’s decision in Hirst v. Whatcom County puts future small wells at risk. The ruling requires local governments to determine whether an adequate water supply for a small well is available before issuing a building permit. No longer can they rely on state-level Department of Ecology determinations. The argument is that these small wells, all together, can have a substantial impact on the amount of water that remains available for fish.

Exactly how the ruling will affect our region remains unclear. Further litigation will determine whether the ruling applies to all counties, or just most. Development pressures here are not as severe as on the west side of the state, but Franklin County Administrator Keith Johnson tells us even in southeast Washington, county officials are worried about the impact on economic development and county budgets. This uncertainty explains why so many are looking for the Legislature to solve the problem.

In the Senate, I am a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 5239, which seeks to restore the proper balance between state and local governments for managing water.

There is a better way, and we see it right here in the 16th District. A Walla Walla Basin watershed planning process that began years ago is one of the state’s best examples of cooperation and coordination. Under the leadership of my predecessor in the House, Dave Mastin, commercial users, tribes and others came together and set reasonable rules for small wells and large-scale irrigators, while protecting in-stream flows for fish.

The Hirst decision reflects the fact that these are complex issues. However, we should not expect individual property owners and cash-strapped county governments to solve them alone.

Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, represents the 16th Legislative District.