Protecting water rights, allowing conservation, and helping farmers be profitable

OP-ED By Reps. Bruce Chandler and Judy Warnick
For the Capital Press Newspaper


Last week in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, we held public hearings on several important bills dealing with water relinquishment, exempt wells, and stock watering purposes. We co-sponsored four bills regarding water rights and relinquishment because we believe they are vital to ensuring flexibility and profitability for farms across our state.

House Bill 1266 allows an application to the Department of Ecology for a change in a water right to be sufficient cause for nonuse. Since every water right transfer requires DOE approval and the department, due to budget constraints has severely curtailed their staff for the processing of water right applications, we believe water rights must be protected from relinquishment while idling in DOE’s change/transfer application line.

House Bill 1267 requires courts and the department to “liberally construe” legitimate reasons for protecting a water right from relinquishment. The language proposed in this bill would especially be helpful anytime a water right comes before the department for a change/transfer or when an adjudication is initiated by a county court pertaining to a particular basin.

House Bill 1268 allows the continuance of a water right if the owner uses at least a portion of the water right for the established purpose of use. We think this would be a huge incentive for farmers and other water rights holders to conserve water and leave more in the stream for fish and habitat.

House Bill 1269 changes the definition of “crop rotation” so both short and long-term changes in crops are included in considering a loss of a water right. If you’re producing a high duty crop, and then you switch to a different crop to regenerate your soil or meet market demands, it is currently very difficult to switch back to a high duty crop since you’ve most likely lost your water right after five years of beneficial use.

These are common sense bills that reflect what our farmers and communities need to grow and prosper into the future. All of these proposals would allow water rights holders to optimize their water rights and consequently allow more water to remain in stream for environmental and fish values.

Some of the concerns raised about these bills during the hearing made the assumption the legislation would expand current rights or create new water rights. It’s not about additional water – we’re talking about protecting a water right that people currently have been using beneficially. It’s improving the use of the water they already have a right to. When this assumption was challenged in the hearing, we received no direct response.

Another concern was that these proposals could be used to manipulate the system, to somehow use extra water or abuse water rights. However, there are already provisions that make wastage and hoarding of water illegal. The Department of Ecology has the authority to stop either of these water rights violations.

There are two sides to water issues. One side says we have a diminishing supply of water and not enough for everyone, even though the Columbia River is the largest volume flow of water from North America into the Pacific Ocean. We firmly believe we have the water available in our state and that farmers are extraordinarily responsible managers of this great natural resource which provides them and others a livelihood.

Effectively managing water resources requires balancing supply and demand. During the winter and spring, we have the supply from the melting snow, but not the demand. During the summer, we have little supply and yet a high demand for crops and personal use. If we properly manage our water resources with efficient irrigation, water storage, and in our municipal water systems, we can ensure we have the water when it’s needed and where it’s needed. This flexibility helps your farms and communities be more successful and viable in changing economies and climates.

While we were encouraged by the support for our efforts by many who even opposed the legislation, there is a tendency to delay work on this issue. We would like to see both sides come together this year to find a solution which will ensure certainty for water users and for stream flows. Water is no different than the air we breathe for us who live and dwell in rural Washington.

This is the time to work on this issue – this year, in a long session. Investors are concerned about not just the economy here in Washington, but the predictable and stable availability of water to create profitable farms. Agriculture is at risk. Our state is at risk: by employing more than 160,000 people, and producing 11 percent of the state’s economic output, constrictions on agriculture would be a devastating loss for our state.

Government should be helping farmers be successful, not standing in their way. Especially in an economic downturn, we need to look for solutions that will help us create economic vitality for the many great industries in our state. We hope you will join us in fighting for common-sense solutions to help agriculture not just survive, but thrive in our state.

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Washington State House Republican Communications