It’s okay to make a mess now because we’ll plan to clean it up later. That, in essence, is what the Washington State Legislature passed and Governor Inslee signed into law last week on rural wells.
The new law largely overturns the October 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision in what became known as the Hirst Decision. The court ruled that counties must follow the state’s Growth Management Act; specifically, counties must make sure sufficient water is available, both physical and legal, before zoning rural areas for residential development.
The new law has wonderful language about “projects and actions that will measure, protect, and enhance instream resources and improve watershed functions that support the recovery of threatened and endangered salmonids.” But while local organizations are developing plans followed by review and approval from the state Department of Ecology, rural property owners are pretty much free to drill for and use water regardless of the effects on streamflows, salmon, and other fish. In my view, this law has it backwards: it says it’s okay to make an existing problem worse for a few years in the hope that we can later mitigate the adverse environmental effects.
Why not require mitigation up front? Here are some mitigation suggestions that would prevent problems, rather than require subsequent clean up:
- Strict requirements on the water-use efficiency of all household fixtures and appliances,
- Limits (or a ban) on outdoor water use during the critical summer months,
- Extension of pipelines from a nearby water association or district,
- Payment into a mitigation fund to be used to increase water supplies within the particular drainage (e.g., to purchase water-use efficiency measures from others in that basin),
- Storage of water during the winter for use during the summer, e.g., rainwater catchment,
- Use of trucks to deliver water to rural homes during low-streamflow periods, and
- Creation of water markets to allow rural homeowners to purchase existing water rights.
Allowing development to occur willy-nilly in rural areas while Ecology and the local committees deliberate on mitigation strategies is a recipe for environmental disaster – a disaster that could easily have been avoided.