Forum in Walla Walla delves into water law proposals

A session at Walla Walla Community College offers a look at the Department of Ecology's wish list for changes.

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WALLA WALLA -- A forum Tuesday will focus on what may be a subject of lively debate next year in the state Legislature.

The "Water Smart Washington" forum will focus on proposed wide-ranging changes to state water law proposed by the state Department of Ecology. The event will begin at 6 p.m. at the William A. Grant Water and Ecology Center at Walla Walla Community College, 500 Tausick Way.

"If people want to get up to speed on this, now is a good time," said Cathy Schaeffer, executive director of the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership, which is hosting the event.

The reforms are intended to provide Ecology with ways to improve its water management programs while reducing reliance on taxes. The proposals are contained in a 76-page report prepared by Ecology and issued to the Legislature in September.

Among the requests: granting Ecology the authority to impose annual charges instead of one-time fees on water users and changing the law requiring water right holders to use their full allotments or lose their water right, in order to encourage conservation.

In a release, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant said the new fees would allow the agency to answer the Legislature's call to increase efficiency at the same time that budget cuts and staff reductions are reducing Ecology's ability to fulfill its mission.

"Our report to the Legislature and the governor provides some timely recommendations on switching water resources from reliance on taxpayer funding to a fee-based system where those who benefit from water management services pay more of the costs of those services," he said.

The reforms would also grant Ecology authority to further limit the amount of water that rural homes and other users could draw from "permit exempt" wells and "actively seek water supply alternatives" to support the economy and restore stream flows for salmon, agriculture and communities.

The forum will be followed by a meeting of the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership board.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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Information on the state Department of Ecology's "Water Smart Washington" reform: ubne.ws/abnCeG

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