CELP in the 2012 Legislative Session

The 2012 Washington State Legislature adjourned on April 11, 2012.  Not only did the session start early, in December of 2011, but the Legislature extended the session beyond the original adjourn date  to balance the state budget, a particular challenge since state revenue once again fell short of what was needed to fund existing programs.  The session opened with many Republicans and conservative Democrats calling for water “reform”.  “Reform” always sounds good when it comes to water policy—but from CELP’s perspective, these so-called reforms were regressive: undermining science-based water management and up-ending conservation-based principles of Washington water law.

For those of you who want more:  The table is a sampler of some of the water bills that died in 2012 session. Many are likely to be back in 2013; it’s going to be a longer session.

Emerging from the session, CELP, along with allies from other environmental groups and the Tribes, managed to keep water management from going backwards.  Ecology’s Water Resources section did not sustain major cuts—but the small staff cuts it incurred will likely hurt operations--the section is already understaffed.  Moreover, Ecology’s Operating Budget contained a proviso akin to one from last session, requiring the Water Resources section to issue 500 decisions on pending water rights permits.  Ecology managed to make the goal in 2011.  The Legislature has kept the pressure on Ecology for 2012 by renewing the 500 decision requirement and not allowing Ecology to count permits where the applicant withdraws the permit as can happen during the review process.  We will have to watch carefully how this year’s permit processing plays out.

What thankfully fell by the wayside in the budget negotiations was SB 6312.  CELP flagged this bill as BAD, and this bill died in the waning hours of the legislative session. SB 6312 proposed a permanent exemption for permit exempt domestic wells in the Skagit River basin, superseding the instream flow protections established by the 2001 Skagit River instream flow rule.  That science-based rule is one of the few in the state that incorporates ground water—including permit exempt wells. Thanks to the leadership of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Bruce Wishart--CELP’s lobbyist, and many others, instream flows in the Skagit River survived this legislative session.  In lieu of passing SB 6312, the legislature inserted $2.25 million in the Capital Budget to buy mitigation water for new development in the three Skagit subbasins that are the most water stressed:  the Fisher, the Carpenter, and the Nookachamps.  Up to $100,000 is tagged for demonstration projects for Low Impact Development techniques (e.g. cisterns, rain gardens, etc.). 

Only one substantive water reform bill passed—and it was a bill that CELP helped keep narrowly targeted.   HB 1381, which is now law, stops the relinquishment clock for a developer who has filed a change application with Ecology, and is waiting for Ecology action. Relinquishment forces developers to use their water once permitted within five years or risk having to return the water to the public trust.  Relinquishment embodies a cardinal principle of Western Water law:  use it or lose it.  Years ago, Washington codified relinquishment. That statute already has many exemptions that effectively allow folks to sit on their water rights for many years without using them. While tolling the relinquishment clock due to Ecology inaction is fair, it is important that the relinquishment statute remains strong and not shot full of exceptions. Relinquishment protects the public interest by returning unused water to rivers, streams and aquifers—it is good public policy for humans, and fish and wildlife. 

Our work was not over with the close of the session however.  CELP led efforts to have Governor Gregoire issue “a signing statement” to ensure that Section 301 of ESSB 6406 would not be interpreted to PREVENT consideration of climate change or greenhouse gases during the environmental review process for new developments and projects.  Many of you assisted us by contacting the Governor’s office. The Governor ultimately issued a well-documented, thoughtful signing statement that provides that greenhouse gas and climate change analysis should be part of the threshold determination analysis conducted by the lead government agency under the State Environmental Policy Act.  A signing statement is the Governor’s statement of the intent of the bill; its purpose is to establish how the bill should be interpreted going forward.  Henceforth, in making water management decisions, lead agencies should consider the impacts of climate change in making the threshold determination as to whether an environmental impact statement will be required.    

Thanks to all of you who took the time to send emails and make calls to your legislators during the course of the session. We depend on your involvement to get the job done.  CELP’s victories are only possible with your support (and squelching bad legislation is a victory).  Please consider donating to CELP today to keep CELP fighting for sustainable water policy in the legislature in 2013.