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Kittitas Co., WA: Water bank funding in question

By MIKE JOHNSTON senior writer 
Daily Record News

Posted April 16, 2013

State funding for water banks in Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties may require its own last-minute legislation or could be delayed to the 2014 session, a state lawmaker representing Kittitas County said this morning.

The three counties are seeking $2 million in state capital budget funds to establish their own water banks, in cooperation with the state Department of Ecology, to encourage rural housing development.

The funds would allow the counties to purchase existing, senior surface water rights in the three-county Yakima River basin.

The local governments would each run their own programs to sell portions of the rights to those wanting to drill new groundwater wells for rural housing. 

The cost of the water rights sold by the counties would be based on the recovery of what it cost county government to administer the program, according to Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell. Funds from the purchases would go back into a county fund to purchase more rights.

The purchased water rights would offset the amount of water pumped from the basin’s restricted aquifer supplies, thus having no impact on the basin’s total water that’s available and not affecting other senior surface water rights.

Negotiations

The state House of Representatives’ version of the  2013-15 capital budget has a $2 million appropriation listed for the program, but the state Senate version doesn’t, said state Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, this morning. She is the ranking Republican on the House Capital Budget Committee.

“That’s going to be an issue we’re going to be negotiating with Senate on for the next week,” said Warnick, who represents Kittitas County as part of the 13th Legislative District.

She said there “was quite a bit of concern” expressed by various legislators on how the (county water-right banks) would be managed.”

She acknowledged that representatives of private owners of water rights in Kittitas County have contacted state lawmakers expressing their concern with the possibility of government-run water banks competing with the existing private water banks in selling rights to those wanting to develop rural housing.

“I truly understand why Kittitas County (government) wants to maintain water availability to its citizens and to as many property owners as possible (with their own water banks),” Warnick said.

She said representatives of the private holders of water rights, who have been selling portions of their rights in the past few years, are framing their concerns in terms of free enterprise vs. government.

Access

Jewell, contacted this morning, said it was imperative for  constituents, property owners and others seeking rural home sites to have access to affordable water rights and not be subject to “monopolistic practices.”

“Water availability is a basic, human need and so this really is an issue of maintaining the public’s health, safety and welfare, not going against private enterprise,” Jewell said. “The private water right sellers  have little or no competition, so they’re like a monopoly.”

Jewell said private water right sellers in the county are getting $7,500 to $15,000 for every water right portion they sell. In other parts of the state where water rights are required for new wells, private holders get $1,000 to more than $2,000 per water right portion.

County water bank

A county-run water bank program would seek to charge for rights based on recovery of the county’s administrative costs, not on how much it can get for rights.

Jewell said having county water bank would create true competition in the local water-right market, a hallmark of free enterprise which protects the end user, the consumer.

Jewell added that there might be a conflict of interest for some developers who also own water rights. A private water-rights seller might influence other developers seeking to buy water rights, or a developer might refuse to sell water rights to competing developers.

“The county is doing all it can to gain support for the county water bank programs,” Jewell said.

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