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Washington officials are asking lawmakers to allow them to charge higher fees to process water rights applications for residents, cities and businesses.
Opponents argue that the state Department of Ecology, the agency charged with managing the state's water resources, must first improve its operations and reduce a significant backlog of applications before charging more money.
However, Gov. Chris Gregoire has ordered state agencies to cut spending in the face of an estimated $5 billion budget deficit over the next two years. Other Western states, among them California and Oregon, have taken similar steps with their water programs as they grapple with budget deficits in the billions of dollars.
Lawmakers have yet to vote on Ecology's proposal, though it is likely to be part of the budget discussions in the weeks ahead.
"We're just in such a tight time now economically that any program using state general fund money is going to be looked at very closely," said Ken Slattery, the state Department of Ecology's water resources program manager.
"Some pretty harsh decisions are going to have to be made."
Ecology's water resources budget includes $5.6 million from the general fund.
The cost of processing a water right, which includes understanding how the water will be used and how drawing it from a stream or aquifer will affect habitat and other water users downstream, can run in the thousands of dollars. Ecology currently charges about 2 percent of the total cost.
At the same time, there is a backlog of about 7,000 water rights applications statewide, with the highest concentrations in central Washington's arid Yakima River basin and in the Nooksack River basin, around Bellingham, in Whatcom County.
"We shouldn't even be talking about fees until Ecology has reformed what they're doing and they're operating in an efficient way," said Darryll Olsen of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
The group, long a proponent for securing more water rights in Eastern Washington, has proposed a competing bill that would establish a water commission to replace Ecology's water resources program and cut its staffing levels.
Olsen called the fee increase proposal "just another tax bill."
"There's a lot of cuts that need to be made," he acknowledged. But, he added, "The state is going to have to start looking at how it's delivering services, and there are going to have to be some fundamental changes."
Among those who agree: Kennewick General Hospital, which has been waiting for a water right for two decades.
The public hospital first applied in 1991, hoping to lease nearly 3,000 acres it had been endowed along the Snake River to farmers. The revenue, in turn, would go to improving health care services in the booming south-central Washington region.
Victor Johnson, the hospital's board president, estimates the hospital has lost in the range of $270,000 each year it waits. At the same time, demand at its physicians' clinics is projected to skyrocket 35 percent this year.
"This is money used for health care. We aren't going to use it for anything else," Johnson said. "We're really just sitting in a queue. Something needs to change."
Slattery said Ecology's proposal calls for eliminating the water rights backlog by 2017. That would be accomplished by contracting out more of the water rights processing work, which would be paid for by the applicants directly or through higher fees.
Unlike the old days, water is no longer free, he said, and processing requests for access to it can't be either.
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