News from the Environmental Subgroup — Sept. 17, 2017

The Environmental Subgroup has been busy. The September 17 meeting reviewed a number of ongoing items requiring further attention from the group:

The Hirst Water Rights Decision (yet another reason to flip the state Senate)

The state capital budget failed to pass in the last legislative session, holding up funding for many different projects, from schools to roads. The final roadblock was disagreement over how to address the outfall from the Whatcom County v. Hirst, Futurewise, et. al. decision. Hirst sued the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board because the Board permitted a housing development that relied on water from “exempt” wells, without considering the impact on senior water rights including instream flows. (Instream flows are water rights that protect water levels in streams or rivers, for example to preserve salmon habitat and tribal fishing rights.)

This logic has always been applied to all water rights except “exempt” wells. You have always needed a water right permit or certificate (“permit”) from the Department of Ecology before withdrawing groundwater, but there are four exceptions for small uses:

  • Providing water for livestock (no gallon per day limit)
  • Watering a non-commercial lawn or garden one-half acre in size or less (no gallon per day limit, however limited to reasonable use)
  • Providing water for a single home or groups of homes (limited to 5,000 gallons per day)
  • Providing water for industrial purposes, including irrigation (limited to 5,000 gallons per day but no acre limit)

Although these permit-exempt uses don’t require a water right permit, you are still subject to state water law. In deciding for Hirst, the state Supreme Court held that new development that depends on wells must show that the water can be supplied to those wells without impacting existing water rights (including instream flows).

This has potentially impacted a whole series of planned household wells and a whole lot of potentially developable land. County governments are responsible for determining whether the water is available, but they don’t have sufficient funding or expertise to deal with this. The state Department of Ecology doesn’t have funding (or sufficient in-house expertise) to assess the issue within any reasonable time period, either.

In some counties, this decision also raises concerns about overall government funding. Land is taxed more if it is developable, and many counties rely on revenue from taxing much of the land base as developable even the land is not yet developed. If exempt wells cannot be installed, much of that land is no longer “developable”, which will crush the tax base of some counties.

During last-minute negotiations this spring, the Democrats offered a 2-year moratorium on implementing the Hirst decision, which would have left people with developments “in the pipeline” a chance to get them finished. It would also have given lawmakers 2 years to negotiate a long-term solution. Republicans just wanted to overturn the Hirst decision. This ground the capital budget to a halt.

One way to resolve the issue is to flip control of the Senate, which is possible with special elections this November. Meanwhile, we are working on ways to help the public understand what’s at stake and why the budget is being held up.

The Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 (Senate Bill 1460)

Senator Cantwell is one of the cosponsors. The bill was originally introduced in July 2016, and approved with no Democratic opposition. But at that time, no one expected a Trump presidency… This bill has a lot of positive provisions related to energy efficiency standards, grid resilience, research funding for alternative energy, funding for the National Parks, and it sets aside the Methow Headwaters (cheers!). However, the bill does not fund development of power from alternative energy sources (except hydropower) and also changes how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approves pipelines and other oil and gas projects. It allows FERC to impose tight approval schedules on agencies like the Forest Service, and gives applicants more effective remedies if schedules are not met. With FERC now dominated by industry-friendly commissioners, these projects can be forced through very quickly, limiting the amount of possible review.

We are talking to contacts at the Sierra Club and other organizations to see what they think of this provision, and whether removing it is a worthwhile goal to limit the expansion of oil and gas infrastructure under the present administration.

Net metering in Snohomish County

Closer to home, in July of this year, Snohomish County PUD #1 reviewed proposed changes to the District’s net metering program that could make rooftop solar for households economically unfeasible. The District supplies power to Snohomish County and Camino Island. We’re learning more about this issue and will share more in the near future.

The District is led by three commissioners with 6 year terms, staggered such that one commissioner is up for election every two years. The commissioner up for election in 2018, Sidney Logan, is a former oil industry consultant: we don’t find his background reassuring.

The Commission meets in October. We’ll be reaching out to Indivisible and other contacts in Snohomish County with an eye on both that meeting and finding a possible challenger for Logan’s seat in 2018.

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