Washington State Municipal Water Law

Earthjustice challenged a state law fostering sprawl and misuse of water resources

Case Overview

In 2003, the Washington State legislature passed the Municipal Water Law, which promoted irresponsible sprawl development beyond wise use of our water resources and ultimately at the expense of junior water rights holders and stream flows for fish. The law redefined “municipal water supplier” to include any private developer with connections for 15 or more homes and allows these developers to benefit from generous rights granted retroactively to municipalities. The law also significantly constrained the ability of the state Department of Ecology to review changes in water rights for municipalities that would further expand water resource use.

Earthjustice, representing individual water rights holders, conservation groups, and commercial fishermen, joined with a coalition of nine federally-recognized Indian Tribes to challenge the 2003 Municipal Water Law as unconstitutional because it purported to retroactively overrule a prior water decision by the Washington Supreme Court—a violation of separation of government constitutional powers—and because the law violated due process rights of water-rights holders.

In 2008, a King County Superior Court judge agreed with Earthjustice and the Tribes and struck down parts of the 2003 Municipal Water Law.

In 2010, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, moving the state in a direction that will likely exacerbate water shortages by allowing growing cities and developers to monopolize and speculate in water rights and future water use, at the expense of tribes’ water rights, smaller prior water users, and native fish.

A child drinks from a water fountain.

Case Updates

December 18, 2013 Press Release

Big Win for Clean Water: Clark County Agrees To Improve Salmon Habitat and Comply with Stormwater Pollution Laws

County agrees to comply with stormwater pollution laws, fund significant stream restoration in lieu of potential federal penalties

October 29, 2010 Press Release

Washington Supreme Court Rejects Citizen Challenge to Law Favoring Sprawl

Court decision encourages development, water speculation

February 18, 2010 document

Municipal Stormwater: 60 Day Notice