State Law Threatens Wells and Washington's Rivers

Action taken to reform unconstitutional law


Tom Geiger, Washington Environmental Council, (206) 622-8103, ext. 203
Shaun Goho, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 29
Joan Burlingame, King County farmer, (206) 852-2318
Scotty Cornelius, Pullman property owner,  (509) 332-2982

A number of individuals who rely on well water, and several conservation groups, filed a lawsuit September 1 challenging a state law that threatens Washington’s water supplies. Shrinking snow packs in the Cascades and declining salmon runs throughout the state make clear that too much water is taken from the rivers and streams in Washington. Compounding the problem, the Washington legislature in 2003 passed a law that redefines many developers as “municipalities” and then gave these “municipalities” legal rights to extract millions of gallons of extra water from Washington rivers and streams.  These additional water withdrawals threaten people with existing water rights, as well as the rivers and wildlife of Washington.

The lawsuit was filed after the Washington Attorney General’s recent refusal to address the constitutional defects of the law. The suit aims to reform this poorly crafted legislation that is hurting water users, jobs and rivers across the state.

“I have lived and farmed here for 25 years,” says Joan Burlingame, a rural property owner and farmer in Ravensdale, Washington near Kent.  I am a frugal water user, and I don’t think it is right that poorly planned development is allowed to take more water as my well runs dry.”

Over the last 25 years development has encroached upon Ms. Burlingame’s property and she has seen her well water drastically decline and sometimes go dry. Despite her conservation efforts, she often does not have enough water from her well for cooking, bathing and laundry.

In eastern Washington, Pullman resident Scotty Cornelius’ well is in the same aquifer as at least two wells that belong to Washington State University. Under the new water law, WSU is attempting to consolidate several of its water rights, which will allow the university to pump more water than it was previously entitled to. The university plans to use at least some of the additional water to irrigate a new golf course.  “I don’t think it is right for my well level to decline due to irrigation for a new golf course,” said Cornelius.

“The amount of water available in any given watershed is finite, and in many places in Washington state, we’re already up against the wall,” said Shaun Goho, associate attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court by plaintiffs: Joan Burlingame, Scott Cornelius, Lee Bernheisel, Pete Knutson, Puget Sound Harvesters, Washington Environmental Council, Sierra Club, and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.  The plaintiffs are represented by Earthjustice.

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