Like millions of families, I grew up in the country, blessed with a few acres in which to roam. To some it was just a couple of acres of grass. To me it was peace and adventure in my own backyard and the best way to grow up. One day I hoped to be able to afford the same opportunity for my children.
Now a harsh ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court in Hirst v. Whatcom County, blocks access to water for rural families — making that life unaffordable and simply impossible for the average Washington citizen.
Declaring that counties can no longer rely on the Washington State Department of Ecology to determine if there is enough water for permit-exempt wells, the court brought the state’s Growth Management Act into conflict with 80 years of water law.
Supporters of Hirst argue the court’s strict new interpretation helps salmon. However, that is just a political disguise for the underlying motivation of impeding development and stopping families from being able to live in rural areas.
Permit-exempt wells were designed to decrease bureaucratic red tape for a de minimums (minimal) amount of water, in the form of 5,000 gallons per day. Supporters of the Hirst ruling say families should not be given access to this water without getting a special, and expensive, permit.
The result is an effective ban, even though permit-exempt wells use far less than the permitted 5,000 gallons a day. In fact, all the rural wells in a large area have less of an effect on the natural water supply than one concentrated city-run water system.
The cumulative effect of all permit-exempt wells on the total water supply amounts to less than 1 percent. Supporters of the water ban want to block access to a paltry 0.9 percent of total water consumption, and make all citizens in Washington bear the cost.
What is the cost all of Washington must bear? Existing homeowners reap a windfall, since they already have wells without a permit. For people without water, however, their land has become nearly worthless. Few families can spend up to $100,000 or more for the hydrogeological studies needed to get a permit-exempt well or pay for expensive water transfers. The result is slowed rural development, decreased property tax revenues for rural communities, and lower employment rates in rural areas.
Fixes to Hirst will hopefully come to fruition during before the Legislature leaves Olympia after yet another special session. However, the most promising solution, SB 5239, has been repeatedly stalled in the House with proposals for costly and overcomplicated programs for the state government to administer.
The State Supreme Court made a political ruling in 2016 that put our state into this unprecedented policy position. Now, rural families are unfairly burdened. The court clearly didn’t listen to rural communities. Instead, the judges bowed to special interest talking points about the perceived need to block access to water for rural homeowners.
As I hear these attacks on rural families and our supposed “waste” of water, I think of how my grandma springs from her chair whenever her timer goes off so she can turn off the sprinkler to her garden. She frequently reminds us to “save a flush,” and at grandma’s house, water used for baths is kept to a minimum to protect the well. Do city families take such care in conserving their water?
Instead of going after rural families on yet another unnecessary issue, the Washington Legislature needs to remember that residents should not have to bear increasing costs and restrictions on their access to water for no environmental benefit.
• Madi Clark is director of the Washington Policy Center’s Initiative on Agriculture.