State lawmakers clocked out of their marathon session Thursday without getting to vote on a two-year capital budget. Local legislators aren’t happy that political rancor over a water-rights bill blocked the capital budget vote.
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he initially thought both the capital budget and a Hirst fix would be passed. When neither came to fruition, Walsh said he was furious with “radical environmentalist groups,” such as the Seattle organization Futurewise, which he believes played a role in blocking the Hirst fix.
“There was this attempt by a few interest groups to create this sense of artificial scarcity, that we couldn’t have both the Hirst fix and the capital budget,” Walsh told The Daily News Friday. “That was a completely artificial frame. There was no reason why we couldn’t have both, there was no budgetary reason, there was no mechanical policy reason.”
The state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision effectively halted rural home construction and drilling of some domestic water wells. The Hirst decision requires anyone wanting to put in a new well to conduct a hydrogeologic study to determine if the well would affect protected rivers or streams, or conflict with a senior water right.
If there is a conflict, the county could revoke or deny the building permit and the well would not be allowed. Hirst does not affect residential hookups to city water systems.
Walsh said although a couple Native American tribes were working with Futurewise to block the legislation, he said most tribes were fine with fixing Hirst.
Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill iyall was not available for comment on Friday.
In a prepared statement, Futurewise Executive Director Christopher Wierzbicki said the group tried to work with legislators to solve the budget crisis. He said he is optimistic a solution will be reached.
“This is not an unfixable problem, but it will require resources and good faith negotiating to get it solved,” Wierzbicki said in the statement.
According to Walsh, Sen. Judy Warnick’s, R-Moses Lake, proposed bill, SB 5239, never even made it roll call.
The Hirst decision is intended to apply only to counties under the Growth Management Act, which does not include Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, or Grays Harbor counties. But Walsh said he is still worried for his district, which includes all three of those counties.
“(Hirst) will have a chilling effect on the effect to build residential houses,” he said. “It will make getting a permit harder. I don’t think it will make it impossible, but it will make it harder.”
Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber echoed Walsh’s comments, adding that the decision creates a climate of unpredictability, especially if someone asks for an exempt well permit.
“How are the bankers going to finance that? They’re not going to finance development when there’s this big question mark,” Weber said.
Fellow 19th District Representative Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, agrees it’s important to overturn Hirst, but he doesn’t think it will negatively impact the district or Cowlitz County.
“As far as I know, every county in the 19th District is still issuing building permits, so I don’t feel like this changes anything for the 19th District,” Blake said.
Not getting the capital budget passed could impact the county, however. According to state Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, the budget included about $70 million for various efforts for the 19th District, including an update of Tam O’Shanter Park in Kelso.
Other items includied grants for a new Longview Police Department shooting range at the Cowlitz Game and Anglers’ range, a water tank rehabilitation project in Kelso, and a new park in Woodland, according to Walsh.
Both Walsh and Weber believe tying the Hirst bill to the capital budget was necessary to grab urban Democratic legislators’ attention.
“Both (the capitol budget and the water rights bill) are really important,” Walsh said. “We have to get out of this game that groups like Futurewise play of creating confusion and exploiting the confusion...This cuts against places like Longview, Kelso, Long Beach and Aberdeen.”
But Takko disagreed.
“That budget was so important to our district,” Takko said. “They shouldn’t have held it hostage for the Hirst bill. The two are completely separate and should be dealt with separately.”
Blake added, “I think every bill should rise and fall on its own merits, and I was disappointed that they tied the two (pieces of legislation) together.”
One water rights solution that popped up in Kittitas County recently is a “water bank,” where a county can purchase senior water rights, and developers can buy water from the “bank.”
Although Walsh said it’s too soon to tell if a water bank would work, he said he was skeptical.
“It’s one of those things that are interestingly abstract, and the more you try to put it into the play, the harder it gets to do well,” he said about water banks. “It’s an interesting idea, but it lacks clear and beneficial outcomes that make me pause, so it’s not a solution I like first.”
Although the legislative session is finished, with no new special sessions announced yet, Walsh said he was optimistic Hirst will be overturned soon and the capital budget will be passed.
“Those strident voices, those influencers, had a bad influence yesterday, and they won the day,” Walsh told The Daily News Thursday. “But I do not believe it’s the last word, it’s certainly not.”