We have reported in the past about a tool that enables a water supply for development while ensuring that water doesn’t get any more overappropriated than it is now. That tool is a water bank, which officials in Yakima and Kittitas counties are working to set up. It allows rural property owners to buy senior water rights before they drill for domestic wells, and thus assures a supply for both current and future users.
The problem, far from unique for cash-strapped governments, is finding money to implement the idea. Yakima County had looked at using sales-and-use tax money that is earmarked for public facilities and economic development. Another problem is, nothing in state law specifically allows for the Supporting Investments in Economic Development, or SIED money, to be used for the water banks.
Problem solved, if the Legislature approves House Bill 2596.
The bill, whose sponsors include 13th District Rep. Judy Warnick, 14th District Reps. Norm Johnson and Charles Ross, and 15th District Rep. Bruce Chandler, would allow counties to purchase water rights in their role as a broker or clearinghouse for the banks. Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, in advocating the use of SEID funds, told the Yakima Herald-Republic, “Most, if not all, would be paid back by the groundwater users over time.”
The measure faces major challenges, as demonstrated at a hearing last week before the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. Representatives of other counties don’t grasp the link between water availability and economic development. The bill tries to address some of the concerns by requiring a county to consult with other municipalities and entities about using the SEID funds for the water bank. The legislation also spells out that using the sales-and-use tax could take place only in water basins where the Department of Ecology and county agree that groundwater has been overappropriated.
The issue of overallocated water supplies isn’t limited to arid Central Washington. Ecology famously has ordered Kittitas County to limit groundwater withdrawals, but Kittitas isn’t alone; the bill notes three counties in Western Washington — Skagit, Clallam and Jefferson — are under similar orders.
Water in the desert is certainly an economic necessity, and the water banks are a creative, sustainable way to foster development. With water users repaying the county’s investment, the water banks are a good bet to pay for themselves. This proposal faces many legislative hurdles before it can become law, and it may not clear those hurdles in this short legislative session. But at least it gets the conversation going about the importance of water and the tools required to foster further economic development.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.