This summer, the Washington State Legislature narrowly passed a state operating budget before a state government shutdown, following several months and three special sessions of negotiations. The capital budget, which would have increased funding for construction projects, wildfire prevention, and mental health funding, as well as $1 billion for school buildings and construction, failed to pass the State Senate after weeks of negotiations.
The holdup? An obscure Washington State Supreme Court ruling on the use of water.
In October 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in what is known as the “Hirst Decision,” stating that in order to comply with the Growth Management Act, water levels for new well construction have to be determined on a county-by-county basis. This means that counties could no longer rely on the State Department of Ecology for water level estimates, but will now have to do their own hydrological evaluations on water levels.
Proponents of the Hirst Decision are concerned primarily with the environmental impact of water depletion in rural areas where citizens could previously construct wells without applying for permits on residential properties. Now, some argue that landowners are no longer allowed to construct wells without applying for permits that must be put through a rigorous analysis by the county.
As Senator Lynda Wilson of the 17th Legislative District (R), which Washington State University Vancouver sits directly in, puts it, “it creates quite the conundrum for lenders, as they can’t lend on land that now no longer has a value, and without a fix to the Hirst Decision, will continue to have no value.” Sen. Wilson also said that the decision “renders rural property owners [sic] land worthless in cases where a well is needed on the property.”
A secondary concern for Hirst proponents? Native American treaties. A statement issued by the Northwest Treaty Tribes website, a communications arm of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission–or NWIFC–stated that tribes are “open to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to develop approaches that will protect water for future generations,” but points out that “water is a finite resource.”
What does this have to do with the capital budget? Senate Republicans wanted to pass a law reversing the Court’s decision, whereas Democrats were seeking a temporary two-year exemption on the new rules to give them more time to create a long-term compromise for all interested groups.
Senate Republicans claimed that two years was not enough time for most well projects to be finished, and banks would not approve loans for projects that would not be legal in two or more years. Multiple sources, including The Water Project and Home Advisor Inc., dispute this claim, stating that a well project should not take more than three days and should cost less than $10,000 to complete — which, if a new home was being constructed, landowners would likely have the capital built into the loan and timeline already.
Representative Monica Stonier (D) of the 49th Legislative District responded saying “there is a sliver of truth,” and that the Hirst Decision has made lending “unpredictable to determine what the value on the piece of land is,” because land is more valuable if construction is possible. However, she specified that lenders were not actually called to testify on any Senate bills and cited this as a reason why “coming to a conclusion on the Hirst decision will take more time.”
Sen. Wilson was quoted by a source as “openly bragging about holding the capital budget hostage” while at an event at the Royal Oaks Country Club on July 19th, hosted by the Building Industry Association and the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. When asked to comment, Wilson responded that even though the Senate passed a Hirst-fix bill four times “House Democrats refused to even hear the bill, even once.”
“Her argument is false,” Stonier responded. “The Senate bills were passed without a hearing, and didn’t go through committee. Democrats and Republicans alike would like to see a compromise, but it’s inappropriate to tie that to passing the capital budget.”
Stonier elaborated on some of the damage done by the failure of the capital budget by pointing out that it renders the operating budget toothless. “We made significant investments in mental health care in the operating budget, but we can’t deliver those services without capital to provide the literal place and infrastructure.” Additionally, “the WSU Vancouver life science building is high on the priority list for the capital budget,” she said, sighing. “That’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens when Senate Republicans try to use the whole budget as leverage.”
Lorraine Loomis, chair of the NWIFC, concurs on a statement issued by the Northwest Treaty Tribes, saying that, “important water policy decisions should not be made under the pressure of budget negotiations.”
All this over a bit of water? As a June 2009 WSU factsheet authored by R. Troy Peters puts it, “Water not only makes life possible, it makes it enjoyable. Although it is difficult to put a direct dollar/gallon value on it, water is extremely valuable. Please don’t waste it.”
Illustration courtesy of Jordan Stevenson