Washington Bills Would Streamline, Reform State Water Management

Twenty-nine legislators supported bills in the House and Senate that would remove some authority from the Department of Ecology and set up a new water commission.

Last week legislators in Washington introduced bills that would create a water commission, which would assume the Department of Ecology's water resources management functions and terminate the department's Water Resources Program, according to a press release from the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

In particular, House Bill 1296 and Senate Bill 5210 would transfer the existing administrative and regulatory powers of the Department of Ecology Water Resources Program to a new Washington State Water Commission, which would consist of seven members with three each elected from west and east of the Cascades and one member appointed by the governor.

Since 2000, Ecology's Water Resources Program has grown by nearly 50 percent in size in employees or FTEs.

Given the state's current budget shortfall and sluggish economy, key political leaders in Washington have been calling for the state to streamline programs and reduce spending. For example, Gov. Christine Gregoire recently stated that "We must not only cut, we must restructure, modernize, prioritize, and position our state as a 21st century government. It's not just about this crisis ─ it's about setting our state on a trajectory that ensures a strong financial foundation for our kids and grandkids ... I know change is hard, but this crisis is our force for change ... Families, businesses and non-profits across this state have been forced to change to survive. We must do the same."

The bills would reduce staff from the current 150 FTEs in Ecology's Water Resources Program to fewer than 100 FTEs at the Water Commission, according to the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. Additionally, it would reduce the number of Water Resources Program offices from five to two under the Water Commission.

"The governor has said she wants to transform state government, so here's a great opportunity to turn words into action," said Rep. Bill Hinkle (R-Cle Elum), who is the prime sponsor of HB 1296. "Not only could we reduce the size of state government, we could provide more accountability and certainty for decisions involving water."

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association promotes water conservation and water efficiency in the Pacific Northwest. Its membership includes row crop, vineyard, orchard and livestock operations and irrigates about 250,000 acres of prime agricultural lands in Washington state and primarily consists of operations along the Columbia-Snake River system, relying almost exclusively on private investment to build and operate highly efficient, state-of-the-art river pump stations and water distribution systems. Many municipalities and port districts are members.