Category: Articles

The Place for Ethics in the Resolution of Hirst and Other Water Conflicts in Washington State

This year’s legislative efforts to restore groundwater availability after the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Whatcom County v. Hirst resulted in a partisan deadlock that also side-lined the state’s $4 billion capital budget.  Economic impacts of the deadlock are now estimated to run to $11 billion and cause a $37 billion decrease in the value of undeveloped land,[1] which will…

UNDERSTANDING THE HIRST AND FOSTER DECISIONS – WHY DO THEY NEED TO BE FIXED?

The Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, the subject of legislative reform efforts and an impasse over the capital budget, is a very controversial barrier to water availability in rural areas. The Court’s 2015 decision in Foster v. Yelm is another controversial ruling that eliminated water right flexibility for mitigation banking and water availability for growing urban areas.  Both of the Court’s…

Whatcom County v. Hirst Decision Requires Counties to Independently Protect Minimum Instream Flows

The Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Whatcom County v. Hirst,[1] will significantly impact rural water availability by requiring Washington counties to ignore exceptions for permit-exempt wells in many of the state’s instream flow protection rules, causing considerable and unwarranted hardship to rural property owners.  The decision expands the Court’s already extreme protection of regulatory instream flows by requiring counties to…

2016 Legislative Action Nips at Edges of Washington Water Problems

The Washington State Legislature adopted three water-related bills that were signed into law at the end of the 2016 Special Session ending on March 30th. In a short session devoted primarily to budgeting for education, it wasn’t expected that major reform legislation would tackle the water supply problems created by the Swinomish and Foster cases. Two of the bills dealt with specific…

Potential Legislative and Regulatory Solutions to the Water Availability Train Wreck*

Preservation of the quality and quantity of water in natural rivers, streams and lakes is vital to the long-term health of our environment. The physical and legal availability of water is also essential to the economic health of our state and its diverse urban, suburban and rural communities. The lack of availability of water leads inevitably to building permit moratoriums,…

Supreme Court Bruises Department of Ecology in Foster Opinion

On October 8, 2015, the Washington Supreme Court reversed a water right permit issued by the Department of Ecology (Ecology) to the City of Yelm. Two months later, the consequences of this decision are still being sorted out by Ecology, the Attorney General’s Office, and stakeholders. In the meantime, the State’s water rights permitting program has gone off the rails…

Potential Solutions to Washington State’s Post-Swinomish Instream Flow/Rural Water Supply Dilemma

 Introduction Department of Ecology officials and stakeholders have been meeting publicly for the last year to discuss post-Swinomish water allocation solutions for rural areas, but their efforts have been stymied by the lack of consensus on legislative or other solutions.[2] New ideas need to be explored and vetted to move beyond common misconceptions and a dysfunctional status quo. The state’s…

Appeals Court Reverses GMHB Ruling re Whatcom County in Hirst Case: Permit-Exempt Wells Not Governed by Nooksack Instream Flow Rule

Whatcom County has won its appeal in a closely watched case at the intersection of water rights and land use law. Division One of the Washington Court of Appeals held that the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board erroneously interpreted the Nooksack Basin Instream Flow Rule, Chapter 173-501 WAC, and reversed the Board’s rulings that Whatcom County was out of…

Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Municipal Water Law (Again)

In what appears to have been an agonizing 6-3 decision by the Washington Supreme Court (it took over 20 months to issue a decision after oral argument), the municipal water law of 2003 (MWL)[i] has been upheld against an as-applied constitutional challenge.  The new decision in Cornelius v. Ecology[ii] resolves substantial uncertainty about the legal effect of the MWL as…

How Messed Up is Washington’s Water Allocation System After Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology?

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology is a major water rights decision by the Washington Supreme Court that is impacting watershed planning, water rights permitting and development in rural areas.  I have been practicing water rights law in Washington State since 1990.  I have witnessed how the state’s water allocation policy has been misapplied by setting minimum instream flows before allocating water…