The Gristle

Fire and Water

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

FIRE AND WATER: With a stalemate continuing in Olympia over the issue of residential wells in basins of restricted supply, Whatcom County Council this week extended their ban on building permits for rural homes that require wells in basins of restricted supply.

The state Supreme Court in Oct. 2016 determined—in a ruling against Whatcom County that’s come to be known as the Hirst decision—that a reliable, year-round supply of water is required for new homes or developments, and that must be determined as part of a county’s planning and permitting process. County planning has done a credible job of covertly, sub rosa moving along a limited number of mature development applications that were already underway when the moratorium curtain fell—contrary to breathless and bloodcurdling reports, the number of homebuilders who were truly trapped mid-action, mid-investment, have been quietly addressed—but County Council is fairly paralyzed until a more clear direction emerges from Olympia.

Undoubtedly, the assurance of adequate water supply will have to be determined by county planners as part of their future permitting; but the county and other jurisdictions would prefer to have the state—notably the Dept. of Ecology—take a lead role and set the standard for defining adequate supply. This—in forms more aggressive or less aggressive—is at essence what is sought through a legislative “fix” at the state level.

State Senate Republicans have issued a bright-line demand that the concerns of the Supreme Court get sponged away by new legislation. Democrats have shown some flexibility in considering new legislation, but believe—along with their supporters, including environmental groups and the tribes—the court’s concerns about water availability and senior water rights must be recognized and accommodated, not simply obliterated. But Republicans have the leverage, holding hostage the state’s $43.2 billion capital budget. The 2017-2019 budget funds hundreds of projects and thousands of jobs around the state.

Since the politics of Hirst are likely to energize and influence election outcomes statewide for all of next year—as Republicans seek to capitalize on the rage of frustrated homebuilders and the cash contributions of powerful construction interests—it’s unlikely the Legislature will come to terms on a “fix” any time soon.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County is not the only entity paralyzed in the impasse.

Gov. Jay Inslee is in Bellingham this week, discussing climate change and the need for individuals and local and state leaders to take action. His presentation at Western Washington University is the first of several meetings and town halls the governor will host to emphasize the importance of climate action and policies to promote clean energy and technology, carbon and greenhouse gas reduction, energy efficiency and more.

A number of those climate change initiatives are addressed in the stalled capital budget.

The governor’s climate action plan was dealt an additional blow this week by the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Act, dismantling President Obama’s signature policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. In a statement this week, the Environmental Protection Agency said repealing the measure will “facilitate the development of U.S. energy resources and reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens associated with the development of those resources.”

For Washington, which receives its coal-fired electricity from a single aging plant outside the state that is scheduled to be shuttered, the EPA action is of vanishing concern. The state is not investing in coal-fired energy. But symbolically, the rollback means partnering states are no longer committed to combatting climate change through policies that encourage investment in clean energy, energy efficiency and climate resilience.

“By repealing the Clean Power Plan, President Trump and his EPA administrator are recklessly removing any meaningful, science-based federal restraint on the carbon pollution that power plants are allowed to pump into our atmosphere,” Inslee said. “The United States Supreme Court has ruled on three separate occasions that the EPA has a responsibility, under the Clean Air Act and other federal laws, to protect American communities from harmful carbon pollution. The Clean Power Plan was constructed to give states the flexibility to choose its own path to a clean energy future.

“Washington state is already feeling the harmful and costly effects of climate change—in more devastating wildfire seasons, strained water resources, increasingly acidic coastal waters, and more. And we are taking action to respond,” Inslee said.

Which circles back to the paralyzed capital budget and the projects held hostage within it. Many are designed to help Whatcom and other counties address concerns about resources, including water.

More than $640 million was requested in the capital budget for Ecology projects planned for the 2017-2019 biennium. Among those projects are $5.5 million to improve channel flows in Swift Creek to help reduce naturally occurring asbestos, and $3.7 million for a number of stormwater projects around the county, as well as funds for the continued cleanup of Puget Sound.

The irony of holding the state budget hostage to Hirst is there are projects within that budget that can in many cases help address the underlying concerns of oversubscribed water supply and degraded water quality. Whatcom County Council is in no certain position to move forward on any programmatic response to Hirst without assurance their programs will be supported by legislation.

Ultimately the paralysis serves no one, other than the elected representatives who will rage and storm about the impasse for the many months of campaigning ahead.

ICU Roof #2
Past Columns
A Creeping Paralysis

October 18, 2017


September 27, 2017

Ounce of Prevention

September 20, 2017

Dwelling On It

September 13, 2017

Keeping the Dream Alive

September 6, 2017

A Bridge Too Far?

August 23, 2017

The Missing Middle

August 16, 2017

The Last, Best Solution

August 9, 2017

Fire and Water III

August 2, 2017

Fire and Water II

July 26, 2017

Fire and Water

July 19, 2017

Some Assembly Required

July 12, 2017

Good, Bad, Ugly

July 5, 2017

Zero Hour

June 28, 2017


June 21, 2017

An Existential Triangle

June 14, 2017

Divided Decisions

June 7, 2017

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