Water Law An Accident Waiting to Happen

The State Supreme Court chose to pass the buck when it ruled recently that the Municipal Water Law doesn’t violate the state constitution.

Back in 2003, a number of tribes, environmental groups and others challenged the law because it gives away a public resource to private interests and ignores tribal treaty rights. It encourages urban sprawl and takes away water needed by fish and wildlife. It gives priority of the water for future growth rather than protecting the rights of the citizens that are here today.

We pointed out the injustice that this law – aimed at helping towns preserve their water rights while planning for growth – included private developers, but left out everyone else. It left out our environment, fish and wildlife too.

It’s a fact that there are more water rights on paper in Washington State than there is water to fulfill those rights. By upholding the law, the Supreme Court has made it possible for developers to hoard water rights, then begin drawing out more water than actually exists.

Before this law, if you couldn’t use all of your water, it could become available to other users. The Municipal Water Law changed all that. Now, developers can hold onto water they can’t even use. That’s a monopoly and it isn’t right.

There’s also nothing to prevent developers from leasing their monopoly water rights to others. That could encourage even more urban sprawl fueled by private gain from a public resource.

In the end, the court punted the ball, saying any specific problems with the law will have to be dealt with case by case. That’s too bad, because now it will take longer and cost more to overturn this bad law.

The law’s a funny thing. We went to court to try and stop an unjust piece of legislation from becoming law, but instead we are being told to wait. Wait until the accident happens.

Well, we can’t wait, and neither can the salmon. We don’t have that luxury any more.

All of this is happening at a time when our glaciers are melting and our rivers are running dry. Our groundwater is being drained by tens of thousands of unregulated wells. At a time when all of us and our natural resources need water the most, we are losing out to those who can’t use it and don’t have to share it.

We all know there’s a big difference between what’s right and what’s legal. Us tribes don’t plan on going anywhere soon. We will continue the fight here and now for our treaty rights and a sustainable future, one battle at a time, or 20 battles at a time.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.


For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180