Water-bank funding bill dead for this year
Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014 1:55 pm
A measure that would have helped county governments fund water-right bank programs for rural home development has died in Olympia.
Counties in the state with restrictions on new groundwater wells would have been allowed to use a portion of state sales tax revenue to buy existing water rights, under the bill sponsored by state Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger.
The bill would have allowed county commissioners to use some of the tax funds in an existing state program that earmarks funds to come back to counties for infrastructure projects, economic development and jobs.
The water rights purchased by county governments would be offered for sale by the counties to rural property owners, contractors and developers to allow the drilling and use of new groundwater wells. The purchased water rights wouldn’t be used. They would be set aside and offset new well water withdrawn from the aquifer for the new housing.
The bill was strongly supported by other Central Washington legislators including Kittitas County’s state lawmakers, Reps. Matt Manweller and Judy Warnick.
The measure was envisioned as a means for county governments in the Yakima River basin and elsewhere in the state to protect limited groundwater resources, but also allow a reasonable level of rural, economic development, Chandler said in a news release.
The bill, proposed by Yakima County commissioners and supported by Kittitas County commissioners, was reviewed in a recent public hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The bill was not voted out of committee by a Feb. 7 deadline to keep legislation alive.
No new taxes
Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, in earlier comments, said the bill doesn’t call for more tax collection but only adds another allowed use of existing sales tax revenue.
Leita said use of the funds would help solve the basin’s groundwater concerns and prompt rural economic development.
Testimony in opposition at the hearing included a representative of the Suncadia resort in Upper Kittitas County, which has its own private, water-right banking sales program.
Paul Eisenberg, Suncadia’s senior vice president for development, said he testified that the intent of the existing state program is to help economically struggling counties boost economic development with projects that create more sustainable economic returns.
Eisenberg questioned how diverting tax funds to buy water rights for a local government program can be seen as giving sustainable returns to the local economy.
He also said it doesn’t appear that a county-run, tax-supported water rights program truly fits in with the county’s overall economic development strategy. He questioned who gets the benefits from the use of sales tax funds.
He noted Suncadia’s water bank program was the first approved by the state and that there are other private programs in the county.
Suncadia’s private sales of water rights has supported more than 400 new homes and sites in the Upper County, he said.
“(Suncadia’s) private program and the others are already working and working well,” Eisenberg said last week. “And public funds are not used.”
He said there’s no need for county government to be involved when private business is filling the need.
Kittitas County Commission Chairman Paul Jewell this week said he’s disappointed the bill didn’t go farther in Olympia. He acknowledged the bill proposed a new use of existing tax funds and was a new concept in dealing with groundwater concerns.
“Whenever it involves water, water rights and some very complex questions, the Legislature usually is very cautious,” Jewell said. “It might take a (water) bill two or three times around to move forward as everyone becomes better informed.”
Jewell said Suncadia’s stance on the bill was confusing because allowing reasonable rural housing and other development, that doesn’t hurt aquifer supplies, directly helps the local economy, the purpose of the state funding program.
“Certainly, Suncadia itself is a rural development that has strengthened the economy, so it’s interesting they would oppose this bill,” Jewell said.
Jewell said it’s likely Suncadia’s position may be linked to its concern that a county water bank would break up its private monopoly on selling water rights.
It’s likely Chandler will conduct public meetings around Central Washington and the state later this year to bring all parties together to continue the conversation, a staff member said.
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