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WA Lawmakers Look to Dampen Water-Use Price Gouging

Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill that would regulate water-rights sales to water banks. (Steve Voght/Flickr)
Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill that would regulate water-rights sales to water banks. (Steve Voght/Flickr)
February 12, 2020

OLYMPIA, Wash -- Washington state lawmakers are taking up an issue that has vexed western states for decades - how to manage water resources. They want to tackle water speculation, which is squeezing some users.

The concern is mostly about who owns water banks, which collect water rights from landowners and sell access to customers. At the Washington State Association of Counties, Policy Director Paul Jewell said there isn't widespread abuse of the banking system, but there have been some instances of what he called mini-monopolies and price gouging for domestic use of water.

"We have other examples, where we're seeing out-of-state buyers are coming into the state speculating on water rights and purchasing them, with the idea that they would stockpile them and re-purpose them for another use at some later date, at a high profit," Jewell said.

Lawmakers began focusing on the issue after a Seattle Times investigation last year found a New York investment firm buying up water rights in central and eastern Washington. Among the bills being considered is Senate Bill 6494, which would regulate water-rights sales to water banks.

Jewell said the issue will need more focus after the short session is done, and he hopes the state will look at how other western states are dealing with it. He added there are some promising provisions under consideration.

Senate Bill 6494 includes transparency requirements that he says could be especially useful for local governments, farmers and tribes.

"Having the ability, for people who are interested, to easily find information and to be notified about how water resources are being used or being changed - within their region, within their river basin, within their watershed, etc. - I think is very valuable," Jewell said.

He said he believes there are many good uses for the current water-banking system, but he thinks it needs some tweaking.

"What we're concerned about are the uses that maybe aren't in the best interest of the public and of the resource, and we're seeing some of those occur," he said. "We just think our current system is too wide open for potential abuse and so, we're looking to address that."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA