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Published on Monday, January 29, 2018

Resolution on capital budget and water issues finally happens

Before we let too much time pass in the crunch of the session, AWC would like to note a very significant set of accomplishments for cities that occurred on January 18. A series of votes by the Legislature finally brought us an approved capital budget and conclusion to a long battle over water management issues – each of which AWC has been working on for multiple years.

First, the capital budget finally passes

The capital budget that passed made major progress on critical issues for cities and makes dozens of other important investments.

AWC led a coalition to save the state’s nationally-renowned local infrastructure investment program - the Public Works Trust Fund (PWTF). Funding for the $97 million dollar loan list in the 2018 capital budget represents the first investments in that program since a series of continuous and devastating revenue diversions beginning in 2013. Heading into 2017 we faced the very real possibility of seeing the PWTF mothballed permanently. While we did not fully reverse this assault we managed to preserve the loan repayment streams and remaining tax revenues, and to live to fight another day for the remaining revenues when the diversions expire in 2023. AWC and our member cities have been working since the first revenue diversions to maintain and protect the PWTF, and with the help of a broad range of interests and key legislators, we were able to pull back from the brink. This could not have been done without the tireless advocacy of individual city officials pressing on their legislators. Thanks to all of you. We hope you feel a sense of accomplishment with this victory.

Another important victory on infrastructure was a $35 million commitment to the Centennial Clean Water program following the strong advocacy of our small-town mayors and AWC for this program that helps small- and fiscally-challenged communities fund much-needed infrastructure projects. This was a great example of a group of our members working with AWC and their legislators to focus attention on a critical issue.

A similar story could be told of our efforts to ensure that the delay in passage of the capital budget did not permanently harm projects that had received funding through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that were underway, but inadvertently left behind when the Legislature passed a stop-gap reappropriations-only capital budget last year. We worked with another coalition of local governments to ensure that there was clear language authorizing reimbursement of city costs incurred prior to the adoption of this full 2018 capital budget.

Finally, the 2018 capital budget contains $19.7 million for what we hope will be a long-term program for local governments aimed at addressing local fish passage barriers – primarily culverts. AWC has been working since 2014 to develop and fund investment in fixes for the most critical fish-blocking culverts owned by private parties and local governments. When the state spends potentially billions of dollars fixing their own culverts, we want to ensure that the fish don’t run into another blockage just upstream. In 2014 we supported funding for the Fish Barrier Removal Board and we have spent the last three years working as part of that board to develop a strategic plan and to vet hundreds of barrier correction projects to identify those with the greatest benefit for endangered salmon and steelhead. This budget funds the first $20 million of those projects and honors the hard work of getting this program off the ground. Cities with identified fish-blocking culverts should keep an eye out for the next grant round as this program moves forward.

We had to address water issues to get the capital budget

All of these victories were on hold because of the challenging political fight over the resolution of the Hirst and Foster Supreme Court cases on water management. AWC worked tirelessly all last session, throughout the interim, and into this session to help secure a hard-fought bipartisan compromise on this complicated and emotional issue. The compromise bill, ESSB 6091 will allow rural housing development to continue across the state in a way that protects the state’s critical fish resources (the Hirst issue). In addition, the bill includes a significant first step to ensuring a viable path for cities to access water rights into the future (the Foster issue).

The final deal provides needed clarification of the cities’ responsibilities under the Growth Management Act, and with building permit and subdivision approvals when it comes to availability of water. In addition the bill sets in motion a process to fix the Foster case that left cities needing new water rights with no viable path forward. It was a constant challenge to keep this Foster issue on the table as the Legislature was more focused on the more emotional and contentious rural well issues from the Hirst case. Without the steadfast support of the two Republican caucuses, several key Democratic lawmakers who understood the importance of addressing this issue, and the unwavering support of our friends in the counties and the development community, we would not have been able to make this progress.

ESSB 6091 authorizes three cities (Yelm, Port Orchard, and Sumner) to receive new water permits that utilize alternative mitigation methods that were lost as a result of the Foster decision. The experience of those communities will inform a legislative task force that is charged with developing a comprehensive solution.

AWC has worked on this issue almost every day since late 2016, sometimes working closely with people we don’t often agree with, and sometimes finding ourselves at cross purposes with our long-time friends. This has been an incredibly difficult and emotional issue for policymakers. We believe in the end that this will ensure that growth can occur in the state while at the same time protecting finite water resources.

For all the technical details on ESSB 6091 see this post from MRSC.