Capital budget impasse ties up several Mid-Columbia projects

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Plans to speed up construction of a new Washington National Guard center in the Horn Rapids area have stalled because state lawmakers can’t resolve an unrelated water rights dispute.

That water rights impasse also has slowed work on upgrading a Highway 395 interchange in south Kennewick, building a science center at the LIGO site, constructing a new academic building at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus, providing more irrigation water for area farmers, bringing Kennewick’s water meter reading into the 21st century, among other Tri-City projects.

Washington Senate Republicans opted not to vote on the state’s $4 billion capital budget bill because of a deadlock between the GOP and Democrats on how to deal with a 2016 Washington Supreme Court ruling on water rights.

Here is what happened.

At issue is dealing with a 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision — the so-called Hirst ruling— that blocks landowners from digging new wells without proving they won’t threaten nearby stream levels needed for fish. The ruling has essentially halted construction of homes and businesses in many rural areas.

After six months of talks to find a compromise to help landowners and rural communities without harming fish, both political parties could not reach an agreement when the 2017 session ended July 20 after three 30-day special sessions.

Meanwhile, the GOP Senate caucus said it would not pass a $4 billion capital budget — both sides agreed on actual projects and appropriations — without a permanent solution to the rural-wells problem. Senate Republicans are sticking to that stance, said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, chairman of the Senate Capital Budget Committee.

“If we’re not holding up the capital budget, there will be no Hirst solution,” he said.

The House Democrats proposed a short-term compromise to put a two-year delay on enforcing the Hirst ruling on well diggers while the two sides work more on a final solution — meaning wells could be dug regardless of the stream implications during those two years. The GOP rejected that offer.

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John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a longtime Pacific Northwest reporter. He is a jack-of-all-trades freelancer with expertise in a variety of topics, including the Hanford nuclear reservation, state government, the environment, science and crime.

View all posts by John Stang