“Hirst fix” bill bad for streams, salmon

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“Hirst fix” bill will harm streams, fish, and senior water users

Democratic majority fails to stand up to minority Republicans and protect rivers and salmon.

Seattle – The Washington Legislature today passed a sweeping permit-exempt well bill (SB 6091, the “Hirst fix”) that will have dire consequences for Washington’s endangered salmon and the people who depend on them. Most of our state’s rivers and streams are already imperiled due to low streamflows. It is well-established that pumping groundwater, including unregulated water withdrawals by “permit-exempt” wells, reduces streamflow. Rural development using permit-exempt wells has been happening at an accelerating pace, taking more and more water from streams and other senior users.

The 2016 Whatcom County v. Hirst decision was not new law. Hirst simply reaffirmed that new wells may not impair more senior water users, including instream flows. Special interests including the building industry and real estate agents pressured the Legislature to ignore the science and “fix” the decision so that rural sprawl could continue unimpeded. Today, Legislative Democrats gave in to that pressure. While this bill is styled as a “fix,” its real effect will be to allow more and more unmitigated water use. The results are predictable: lower streamflows, higher water temperatures, and fewer fish in the rivers.

Methods for mitigating water use and avoiding impacts on streamflows are well-established, and indeed are in use in several parts of the state. But the bill does not require mitigation; it provides for “watershed preservation and enhancement committees” which will develop projects to “offset water use by permit-exempt wells.” While well-intentioned, the committee process is unlikely to lead to fully mitigating water use. Worse yet, the bill fails to meaningfully limit water use or even to provide for metering of water use, so that we will never know how much water is actually being used. It is almost inevitable that senior users and rivers will be harmed.

Another provision of the bill is even more troubling: it calls for “pilot projects” allowing water to be taken from streams and mitigated using so-called “out-of-kind” mitigation (generally stream-related habitat projects) rather than actually protecting streamflows. This is especially egregious because this provision is not even aimed at Hirst, but at another decision holding that streamflows must be protected (Foster v. Ecology). Out of kind mitigation sets the stage for a huge water giveaway, with serious consequences to streams and fish.

“The best habitat in the world is worthless if there is not enough water in the streams,” said Dan Von Seggern, staff attorney for CELP. “As mitigation water becomes harder to find, it is inevitable that “out-of-kind” mitigation will become the path of least resistance. Ecology needs to live up to its obligation to protect instream resources by carefully monitoring the watershed committees and the “offset” schemes they develop.”

“We are disappointed in leadership in the Legislature that has allowed the capital budget to be held hostage to an issue that has nothing to do with the budget. This agreement will harm fish, senior water right holders, and tribes. We expected better” said Trish Rolfe, CELP’s Executive Director.

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