Editorial: Public has role in water allocation
Kittitas County, WA – Call it cutting edge, well ahead of the curve or being a guinea pig for state agencies, but there is no denying Kittitas County is tackling exempt well issues that likely will be encountered by other counties and regions in the state at some point in the future.
The challenge for county officials is to survive this period when it may be hard for a small, rural county to influence decisions being made in Olympia. A few years from now, officials from other more populous counties may say, “Oh, that was what Kittitas County officials were talking about,” but for now Kittitas County may be the most motivated jurisdiction in the state when it comes to finding realistic, workable solutions to managing exempt well use in rural areas.
One of the main issues now is water banks. Water banks in Kittitas County are privately owned. A person wanting to purchase the water right needed to offset an exempt well use needs to purchase that right from a water bank.
Kittitas County commissioners correctly advocate for a system that recognizes water as a public resource.
Not surprisingly, there is money in water.
One one level, the private sector has worked perfectly in resolving this county’s water dilemma. When restrictions were placed on exempt well use, private entities that owned water rights created a program (with the help of state agencies) to sell water rights to people who wanted to build homes. Based on comments from people who developed properties, the cost ranged from $10,000 and up.
There is no arguing that the need to purchase a water right made building a home in certain sections of rural Kittitas County more expensive, but at least the private water banks created a potential to build a home.
The question is whether water should be controlled by the private sector? If water is seen as a utility it would be the only utility in this situation that is not either publicly owned or publicly regulated (price controls).
The argument for either public water banks or price controls is that water is essential. A person cannot build without water.
Also, a person cannot shop around for a good price at competing water banks. Water is complex. The water right purchased comes from a specific basin. You can’t go online and see that water is selling cheaper in Yakima and buy it from there. It doesn’t work that way.
The water bank that serves your property is where you buy your water right.
The case for public water banks or public price regulation of private water banks is compelling. The fact that Kittitas County, a county with a mere 40,000 people or so, is at the forefront should not influence or direct this decision.
There is ongoing debate in Olympia and the fate of public funding for water purchase plan remains in doubt.
Water is not currently a pure free market system. It’s a compromised system that allows for mini-monopolies. At a minimum it requires public management that provides access at a reasonable price.
The arguments by the Kittitas County commissioners may not carry the day in Olympia, but they should.
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