Legislature passes capital budget for $4 billion in new school, other construction projects

SEATTLE (AP) — A deal reached by top state lawmakers on a rural water dispute paved the way for approval of more than $4 billion in new school and other construction projects Thursday, officials said.

Republican and Democratic leaders reached a negotiated agreement earlier this week on the water dispute and the two-year capital budget, said Rep. Larry Springer, a Kirkland Democrat.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, a Snohomish Republican, told TVW's "Inside Olympia" that a bipartisan deal was reached late Wednesday and Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, agreed to sign that bill.

The state Senate and House passed the water bill, Senate Bill 6091, and the capital budget Thursday night.

New money for local water and sewer projects, school construction, mental health facilities and other construction across the state have been on hold since lawmakers adjourned last year without approving the capital budget.

"It is good news for Washingtonians that the Legislature passed the long-overdue construction budget," Inslee said in a statement. "It is, however, extremely unfortunate and, frankly, irresponsible, that for nearly a year Republicans stalled those projects and refused to vote on the $4.2 billion capital budget by linking it to passage of an unrelated effort to address the Supreme Court's Hirst ruling on water rights."

Republicans had insisted first on getting legislation to fix the so-called Hirst court decision. That 2016 state Supreme Court ruling restricted new household wells in certain rural areas if they affect water in streams for fish or other senior water rights.

The negotiated deal allows landowners in rural areas to tap household wells — more commonly known as permit-exempt wells — while newly formed local committees come up with longer-term watershed plans, said Springer, a key negotiator on the water issue. Those plans must outline how to offset potential impacts to rivers from those wells.

The proposal includes $300 million over the next 15 years for projects that improve stream flows and restore watersheds, Springer said. Examples include reconnecting floodplains, buying water rights or other improvements.

The deal will also allow counties to rely on the Department of Ecology's water rules as they had before the Hirst decision. In its 6-3 ruling, the state's high court said counties must make its own independent assessment of water availability before issuing building permits. Many counties said they didn't have the resources or expertise to do the kinds of studies that would have been required under the ruling.

Sen. Judy Warnick, a Moses Lake Republican, said last week that the issue is simply about helping people who want a well for their home.

Property owners have provided emotional testimony in Olympia, recounting how they spent thousands of dollars to prepare lots to build homes or to dig wells but weren't able to get building permits.

Building, real estate and property rights groups and other critics said the court ruling resulted in staggering economic impacts in rural communities, from declining home values to stalled building.

The Building Industry Association of Washington supports the bill. "It will provide certainty for local permitting authorities and as a result builders and property owners," said Jennifer Hayes, the group's spokeswoman.

Environmental groups and several tribes across the state maintained that the Hirst decision correctly required local governments to plan ahead so new water withdrawals don't take way from water in streams or from those with senior water rights, including tribes, municipalities and farmers.

"The state does a horrible job with managing water and they're not improving things with this bill," Daryl Williams, a natural resource consultant for the Tulalip Tribes, said Thursday. The bill provides some money for watershed restoration, but he said when that money is spent, people will build without concern for impacts to the watershed.

Bruce Wishart with the Sierra Club said environmental groups have concerns about the bill, including an emphasis on mitigation projects that won't return water directly to streams.

"While far from perfect, this bill helps protect water resources while providing water for families in rural Washington," Inslee said, adding that more work will need to be done to meet mounting pressures on stream flows and salmon in the face of climate change and growing demand for water.

Under the proposal, Springer said that landowners who already began drilling wells will be grandfathered in.

Until new watershed plans are approved, landowners who want to access a domestic well would pay a $500 fee.

The amount of water they could withdraw would vary depending on the watershed basin. People with wells in some areas would be allowed to take 950 gallons (3,600 liters) a day, while others would be allowed 3,000 gallons (11,400 liters) a day.