There is a saying in the West, that "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting."
Two events in the news today bring that saying home. First, in Washington state. Almost a year ago the Washington State Supreme Court issued an opinion now known as the HIrst Decision. Prior to this court case, if a landowner wanted to drill a well they were not required to get a permit. Rather, wells for domestic use were considered "exempt" from the permit requirement. However, as we become more knowledgeable about hydrology, we are confident that there is a link between groundwater withdrawal and flows in surface streams. In other words, the more water you take out of the ground, the less water goes into streams. Hydrologic continuity.
In Whatcom County an environmental organization brought litigation against the county for allowing building permits with exempt wells as the water source. Most rivers and streams in Washington state are over allocated, meaning that rights to the water in the streams are more than what "normal" in-stream flows should allow. So the Washington State Supreme Court decided that for a county to issue a building permit that depends on an exempt well for domestic use, the county must show that that well will not cause any significant reduction in the watershed's in-stream flow. This is a rather significant undertaking.
Of course, the building industry went on a legislative lobbying spree, seeking to not only find a legislative fix for the Hirst Decision but also to roll back the state's growth management regulations which also limit development in rural and forested areas.
This is a highly complex issue with many stakeholders involved, including tribes, anglers, hydrologists, developers, land owners. It will take more than a "regulatory roll back" in order to protect Washington's vital waters that have been under enormous pressure over the past decades. But the Republicans have been trying, holding up budget negotiations in order to ram through their idea of regulatory relief.
Rather, what needs to happen is our policy makers take some time to understand the complexity of hydrology, bring all stakeholders to the table, and find ways to ensure that constant ground water withdrawals are not impacting the last of our iconic salmon and steelhead rivers.
And in California, Republican members of Congress want to dam, channel, and divert the San Joaquin River, claiming that farmers matter more than fish. The callousness of that statement is breathtaking. No one denies that farmers are vital to us, but this should not be an either/or proposition.
It takes water to make whiskey. But it sure looks like we are in for more fights than can be cured by having a drink with each other.