Tribes Continue To Oppose “Water Grab And Hoarding Bills of 2003”

OLYMPIA (June 11, 2003)– Passage of three water bills in the waning hours of Special Session Number One of the State Legislature last night sent a clear message to the tribes that the state is being run by people who could care less about salmon, the environment, public trust or Indian treaties.

“The circus being run in Olympia by Governor Locke, certain agency officials, and certain legislative leaders is performing to the music of big business and big water users,” said Billy Frank, Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “The fact is that people like Governor Locke, Speaker Frank Chopp, State Water “Czar” Jim Waldo, DOE Director Tom Fitzsimmons and Rep. Kelli Linville are being very short-sighted and irresponsible. They may think they’re supporting the economy through the over-exploitation of water in this state. But the fact is that the long-term economy utterly depends on a wiser and more respectful approach. The tribes have worked hard to find cooperative solutions with them, but they slammed the door in our face last night, telling us to sue them. They fired the first salvo, along with every legislator who voted for these bills. That, too, was very irresponsible and short-sighted, and caters to special interests,” said Frank. Frank is the natural resources spokesman for treaty Indian tribes throughout western Washington.

One of the bills passed was SB 5028, which passed the House by a vote of 61 to 31 after Speaker Chopp over-rode the majority of his own caucus to bring it to the floor. This bill forbids the Department of Ecology from using water quality law to restrict water quantity takes. DOE was one of its primary proponents, which sends a clear message about the agency’s lack of desire to live up to its public trust in protecting the environment. Although this bill increases maximum daily illegal water use penalties from $100 to $5,000, this is a moot point because increased enforcement would be limited to waste, not illegal water use, and DOE’s record on collecting fines is dismal. More importantly, the bill will lead to more pollution problems, coming hand-in-hand with reduced stream flows. Washington will now become just one of two states to give up this authority, said Frank. The other state, Colorado, has been slapped by the federal government for its lack of protection of instream flows. (i.e., Two Forks Dam proposal, diverting and shipping water to Denver.)

“This is another example of Washington State throwing its responsibilities to the public away, at the demand of special interests,” said Frank, adding that SB 5028 removes a critical enforcement tool. “It makes no sense to eliminate any legal tool available to DOE which is necessary to protect water quality. This bill does that, hand over fist,” he said.

Also passed were HB 1336, a somewhat less egregious watershed planning bill, and HB 1338, the Municipal Water Bill, which passed the Senate 33-11, disregarding an impassioned plea by Senator Karen Fraser of Olympia for the state to be more accountable to its natural resource-related responsibilities.

HB 1338 is the worst bill of all, said Frank. “Supporters of the legislation say this bill simply lets municipalities use existing water rights to meet future community growth needs, and that it offers some conservation incentives,” said Frank. “That is a lie,” he said. “It’s not that simple.”

“The truth is that HB 1338 is probably the worst bill for the environment that the legislature has passed in two decades. These bills contain the same principles that Governor Locke, himself, vetoed in years past in the name of conservation,” says Frank. “Which way does he want it?”

For years, water users have cried loudly that the state was not adequately processing water right transfers, changes, and new applications. As a result, the state invested additional resources and reprioritized existing staff to expedite out-of-stream permitting over that amending or establishing new instream rules, said Frank./p>

Now, these out-of-stream interests recognize that current law will not provide them with the unfettered and unqualified use of their existing water rights, certificates, or claims. Rather than filing for new permits that would require environmental or other protection, these same interests have gotten the legislature to amend their existing water rights to allow for non-permitted or reviewable transfers and changes. “They want to expand their water rights to avoid constraints from junior water right holders or environmental protection, said Frank.

“In short, this bill bumps junior water right holders, ranging from schools and churches to the agriculture community, so very broadly-defined municipalities can get theirs for the next 50 years. They’re prioritizing the needs of people who haven’t moved here yet over those of current users,” said Frank. “That’s unconstitutional,” he said./p>

“Obviously, water management in this state is on a collision course with the tribes and anyone else who cares about the health of the environment,” said Frank. “We’re referring to these bills as the water grab and hoarding bills of 2003,” he said.

Tribes actually own the water, in conjunction with the state and federal governments. They also hold the most senior water right, according to Western Water Law and numerous court cases, and hold reserved treaty rights that protect instream water resources needed to sustain fish and wildlife populations, said Frank.

For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, (360) 438-1180