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Suit Claims Water Boards Short-Circuit Permit Process

KENNEWICK (AP) -- Two environmental groups have sued the state Department of Ecology to try to limit the power of local water conservancy boards, which were set up to process water rights transfers.

The Washington Environmental Council and the Center of Environmental Law and Policy are worried the state has given the boards too much control.

"What I fear is that developers are just going to go to the board as a way to short-circuit the Ecology process," said John Arum, a Seattle lawyer representing the two groups. "The Ecology Department is much more rigorous."

Still, the Ecology Department itself has struggled with incongruities in the law and uncertainties about how much water is being used. In recent years, few of the 6,000 applications for new or changed water rights have been processed.

Those delays stalled hundreds of often relatively simple requests from water users, such as changes in diversion points or places of use.

In 1997, the Legislature approved the creation of water conservancy boards that counties could set up to process water rights transfers and ease the gridlock.

Eight conservancy boards are operating and four others are in the works. Among the counties using the citizen boards are Adams, Benton, Grant, Franklin, Yakima and Walla Walla.

So far, fewer than 10 decisions have been made -- almost all in Benton County.

The Ecology Department believes the new boards have promise.

"We are very happy with their progress," said Mary Getchell, an agency spokeswoman. "We really need to involve local governments and people in the community in managing water."

The two environmental groups' dispute with the boards stems from what the Legislature meant when it gave them the power to transfer water rights.

Arum contends that only authorizes a board to move water rights from one person to another. It doesn't give a board the power to approve changes in the purpose or place of use or point of diversion, he said.

The Ecology Department disagrees.

"We believe the conservancy boards have the authority to make changes in all types of water rights decisions," she said.

The environmental groups contend that the volunteer members of the water boards don't have the expertise needed to make decisions on the sometimes complicated requests.

"It gets the board into areas they are just not equipped to handle right now," Arum said.


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