STATE LEGISLATIVE NEWS
SENATE BILL 5010
"USE IT OR LOSE IT"
a COUNTERPRODUCTIVE ASPECT OF WASHINGTON WATER LAW THAT HURTS CONSERVATIVE EFFORTS
From the Washington Policy Center: KEY FINDINGS:
1. Water rights depend on use, and the principle of "use it or lose it" has
governed Western water law, meaning when water is unused it is relinquished (taken) by the state. This principle has encouraged little to no improvement in water conservation.
2. Agriculture is constantly developing new technologies to improve water conservation, yet the economics of adoption often discourage new conservation practices. Washington's policy of permanently taking away unused water rights fundamentally hinders conservation practice by increasing the costs of conservation.
3. There is no value in a water right that a farmer may lose through relinqishment to the state. Washington state policymakers should recognize the actual value of water.
4. To modernize Western water law in a way that encourages conservation,
Washington's water law should allow for an exemption from relinquishment for those growers that adopt water conservation practices. A simple proposal in this legislative session would create this change, SENATE BILL 5010.
SB 5010 adds another "sufficient cause" to the list of exemptions, protecting a water right. "If such a right is used for irrigation or agricultural purposes and is not exercised to the full extent of the right due to the implementation of water conservation or water use efficiency measures." This policy change would encourage farmers to adopt water conservation without losing their property rights.
As farmers adopt water conservation practices, less water is used. Under current law if no other sufficient cause is met, the saved water is taken by the state after five years. Due to responsible conservation choices made by the farmer, at his expense, he has forfeited his water right equivalent to the amount of water saved and will never be able to use the water again. Opponents of conservation as a sufficient cause argue that the farmer no longer needs the water. However, a lot can change in five years and the farmer may need the water for a different crop choice or to expand their operation.
Current policy in Washington State discourages water conservation. Changing our laws and policies would improve conservation and protect this valuable and limited resource. SENATE BILL 5010 would protect water conservation from relinquishment, encouraging farmers to adopt more conservation technology and save water in the process.
To create impactful and effective change, policy considerations promoting conservation should start with ending the negative impacts of the "use it or lose it" principle. SENATE BILL 5010 would end some of these negative impacts. Once this frustrating aspect of water law is changed, natural market forces will encourage conservation and more desirable policies, like water markets, will one day be more effective.
WASHINGTON POLICY CENTER