Well water case’s costs could hit urban areas, Republicans argue

Correction: A previous version of this article stated a federal judge ruled in the Hirst Case. That was incorrect. A Washington State Supreme Court judge ruled in the case.

The impacts of a well-water court case could increase property taxes in urban areas, argued Republican lawmakers Monday.

A Washington Supreme Court judge made a decision on a Whatcom County case in October 2016 that counties are responsible for determining whether there is enough water available to permit small wells. Prior to the decision, counties deferred to the state and, more specifically, the Department of Ecology. Personal wells (defined as those that pump less than 5,000 gallons per day) were considered exempt.

Many Republican lawmakers criticize the decision, saying it will present an expensive challenge to rural residents who haven’t yet drilled a well. Counties could also be expected to conduct costly tests to determine whether permitting would be allowed on a parcel of land.

Republican leaders said Monday the costs are expected to be so prohibitive that some residents simply won’t be able to afford it, which would lead to a devaluation of the property.

“When you have rural lands that are assessed and taxed…to pay for local governments, and the Hirst Decision says you can’t put a well on that piece of property: it’s not assessed at $200,000 anymore. It’s assessed at $30,000.” said Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg. “That money doesn’t go away. It shifts to other property. And you know where that other property is? In urban areas. The Hirst Decision is a massive tax shift from the rural areas to the urban areas. If you reduce the value of my 200-acre farm because there’s no water on it, you are going to increase the tax assessment on that high rise condo in downtown.”

Supporters of the decision in the Hirst Case argue it is a step in the right direction toward more sustainable water mitigation.

But Republicans are urging the House to pass a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, that would nullify the court’s decision

“I would suggest to my friends who represent urban Washington, generally my friends on the other side of the aisle, you should pay attention to Hirst too, because you’re the ones who are going to be paying the bills as well,” Manweller said.

Sen. Mark Schoesler said relying on the Department of Ecology as counties had before, and as Warnick’s bill proposes, would be the least expensive, but most effective way to move past Hirst.

“Right now we have a system that is affordable, well-understood and has served our state well. The farther we veer from that, the more we hinder our ability for people to live outside of incorporated areas,” he said.

Erin Fenner: erin@washingtonstatewire.com, @erinfenner

The Morning Wire: Keeping you informed on Washington politics, policy, and political economy