Whatcom County v. Hirst Decision Expands Instream Flow Protection to Counties under GMA

The Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Whatcom County v. Hirst,[1] will significantly impact rural water availability by requiring Washington counties to ignore exceptions for permit-exempt wells in many of the state’s instream flow protection rules, causing considerable and unwarranted hardship to rural property owners.  The decision expands the Court’s already extreme protection of regulatory instream flows by requiring counties to make independent “legal water availability” determinations under the Growth Management Act (GMA) before issuing building permits that rely on permit-exempt wells as water supplies.

Both GMA planning counties and non-GMA counties throughout the state are facing confusion about how to implement the Hirst decision.  Several counties have declared moratoriums until it is sorted out, which in turn has led to numerous calls for legislative fixes.  Given the plethora of regulatory ironies created by the decision, some of which are described in this article, these calls for reform deserve the Legislature’s attention in the upcoming session.

The attached article looks at the history of the Court’s self-described “instream flow jurisprudence” and asks whether the Court hasn’t expanded the scope of instream flow water rights and exceeded its constitutional role as an arbiter of cases with the Hirst decision.  A companion follow-up article will look at potential legislative fixes and provide compliance options for counties and developers of rural properties.

[1] Whatcom County v. Eric Hirst, et al., Wash. Supreme Ct. Case No. 91475-3 (slip opinion dated Oct. 6, 2016).

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