‘Fixing’ What’s Broken
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
‘FIXING’ WHAT’S BROKEN: The push for a legislative “fix” to the problem of rural wells continues to move glacially through Olympia.
A reliable, year-round supply of water is necessary for new homes or developments; however, a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision has changed how counties decide to approve or deny building permits that use wells for a water source. Before the Oct. 6, 2016, court decision known as Hirst, many counties—including Whatcom—relied on what the state Department of Ecology said about whether year-round water was available. Counties now have to make their own decisions about whether there is enough water, physically and legally, to approve a building permit that would rely on a well.
The case directly relates to Whatcom County but sets a standard that applies in other counties across the state where there are instream flow rules that were not intended to regulate permit-exempt water uses.
The “fix” is Senate Bill 5239 and associated House bills that attempt to roll back the clock and re-designate Ecology’s rules as appropriate for counties to use in their land use planning and permitting. The bills don’t attempt to do much more than this, however, papering over larger issues of water availability and rights to water by declaring a problem is no longer a problem.
SB 5239 passed out of the Senate’s special overtime session last week after four Democrats crossed the aisle to support the bill along with Republicans. The bill and associate bills then moved again to the House Agriculture & Natural Resources committee, where earlier drafts mired in regular session. The reason they mired is common to all bills that struggle to the floor for a vote—the uncertainty there’s enough votes to support them. In this case, the “fix” simply kicks the can down the road, without policy or funding, on issues of water planning.
Whatcom County Council asked for the legislation in December as they dropped in place a building moratorium on projects that rely on rural wells in basins closed to additional withdrawals.
“Over the past decades, local governments and landowners have relied on Ecology’s authority as our state’s sole water resource agency,” Council noted in their letter to state legislators. “The Supreme Court failed to note, let alone analyze, the various legal authorities that support consistency between local government land use permitting and Ecology’s water resource authority.
“Whatcom County,” they wrote, “requests a solution that is not very novel: that the Legislature establish that local government land use plans and permit decisions can rely on Ecology’ s regulation of water resources.”
Council got a response back last week from their 42nd Legislative District representatives in Olympia, and it was as surly as it was non-responsive—citing a litany of issues that have nothing to do with Hirst and that are frankly not their concern.
“While we are working on a Hirst solution, due to the potential ramifications for Whatcom County residents, our local governments and the regional economy, we are also concerned about other action the county may take that could affect the livelihoods of Whatcom County residents,” Sen. Doug Ericksen wrote in coordination with Reps. Vincent Buys and Luanne VanWerven. The legislators then launched into a bullet-point recital of Council actions related to fossil fuel exports, which have nothing to do with Hirst.
Getting no action on Hirst, Council instead received from their representatives in the state capital a scolding on entirely unrelated matters.
Council member Todd Donovan rebuked their rebuke, noting their letter reads like a partisan campaign piece dressed up with taxpayer-funded State Legislature letterhead.
“The Hirst decision,” he wrote, “is an issue where the Legislature, Whatcom County Council, and our constituents share a common interest. Yet your response is a bullet-point list of ‘concerns you hear’ about actions our Council has taken that have nothing to do with the Hirst case.
“None of you have called me to discuss how we can deal with Hirst. None of you reached out on these matters unrelated to Hirst that you have emphasized in your response. A call or email from you as individuals might have been a decent place to start discussion.
“Consider this: I frequently hear more than just ‘concerns’ about Sen. Ericksen, Rep. Buys or Rep. Van Verven from local businesses, union members, health care providers, first responders, educators, moms, dads, kids, students, neighbors, and many other constituents,” he wrote. “Many of your policy goals terrify people I hear from here in Whatcom County. I also hear bitter complaints about the policy goals of your House and Senate party caucuses.
“Yet we need civility and we need to work together on the Hirst matter. Why use your official letterhead to send us a joint press release that takes advantage of the Hirst case to score political points by shouting out unrelated policies? Would the people of Whatcom County be well-served if this Council responded in kind by sending you another letter asking for help with Hirst, under Council letterhead, with complaints we hear about you failing to fund K-12 education? I think not, and I find your use of this method as counter-productive.”
Donovan notes that he has since heard from 42nd District legislators. They were civil.
Yet it is all part of a general seeping petty nastiness that has crept into the politics of the 42nd District. Earlier this session, Buys and VanWerven were among five Republicans across the state who decided to throw a shovelful of dirt on a memorial to Sen. Harriet Spanel, a Democrat who served Whatcom County for 22 years in Olympia, voting against House Joint Memorial 4010, while 92 members overwhelmingly supported the gesture. Their partisan violence to her memory was as disgraceful as it was pointless.
A group who cannot compartmentalize and subordinate their acrimony cannot serve the long-term interests of Whatcom County. While they’re “fixing” things in Olympia, we’d suggest the 42nd District start with their attitude.