Implement Hirst decision to allocate state’s water rights cautiously and fairly

Overturning Hirst would be a shortsighted fix causing lasting damage to the region, especially since the court’s ruling protects everybody’s access to water.

THERE is a great deal of frustration these days surrounding water policy in Washington. You may have heard the rallying cries to “fix Hirst,” as developers, Realtors and banks called for a state Supreme Court decision to be overturned. In fact, the push to upend the case, Whatcom County v. Hirst, ultimately prevented the passage of a bipartisan-supported $4 billion capital budget that would have funded schools and other universally supported projects.

Overturning Hirst would be a shortsighted fix causing lasting damage to the region, especially since the court’s ruling protects everybody’s access to water.

The Hirst decision clarified that Washington’s Growth Management Act requires counties to protect ground and surface waters by ensuring there is enough water available to accommodate growth before more development is authorized. It also clarified that residential wells — which do not require a state permit — are not currently managed to ensure protection of our water resources. As a result, counties need to make an independent decision about the impacts of new wells on water availability.

The Hirst decision is consistent with 100 years of Washington water law, because it follows the prior appropriations doctrine — new water appropriations shouldn’t impair senior water rights, including those held by farmers, municipalities, tribes and the environment. Since tribes have always been here, they have senior water rights for both water supply and the preservation of flows for fish, which they have a treaty-protected right to harvest.

This doesn’t mean that new growth must stop. It just means that we need to assess how much water there is and how much water is spoken for, before we allocate it. We need to look a little closer at the consequences of our actions before we act.

If you want to avoid bouncing a check, you balance your checkbook before making a purchase. In water…

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