New restrictions lead Sheldon to vote no on well-water bill

OLYMPIA – The Legislature’s solution to a rural-Washington water crisis misses the mark, state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said Thursday. Though a measure passed by lawmakers Thursday allows well-drilling to resume in rural areas statewide, Sheldon said it imposes a patchwork quilt of new rules property owners will find difficult to follow.

Sheldon was among those who voted against the measure, which passed the House and Senate Thursday night. SB 6091 was prompted by the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision, which imposed near-impossible requirements on property owners seeking to drill new wells and brought development in many areas to a standstill. Passage of the bill enables counties to resume issuing permits for new rural construction, but it also imposes new planning requirements and varying restrictions on water usage in individual watersheds.

“Things are finally moving in the right direction,” Sheldon said. “We’ve got a fix to the Hirst decision, and this allows us to pass a capital budget that will provide money for projects across the state. Unfortunately, the Hirst solution divides my district into haves and have-nots.

“Those who already have wells will be ‘grandfathered in’ at 5,000 gallons a day, with no changes. This is true wherever you are located. But new wells could be restricted to just 950 gallons a day, and property owners will have to pay higher fees.

“Most of the 35th District will be under these new rules. But the lightly-populated northwestern part of the district, around Skokomish River North and West Hood Canal, will continue to be allowed 5,000 gallons a day.

“The Hirst decision made no sense in the first place. These small household wells pose no threat to water supply because they are responsible for less than 1 percent of water usage statewide, and nearly every drop is returned to the ground to recharge the aquifer. These new restrictions don’t make sense, either. I’m glad we’ve managed to eliminate this threat to rural property owners, but all we needed to do was to pass a bill to overturn the court’s decision. We could have done much better.”