The Washington state Supreme Court on October 28 upheld the constitutionality of Washington’s Municipal Water Law, removing uncertainty over water right certificates issued as far back as the 1950s.
In a 9-0 decision in Lummi Indian Nation v. State, et al , the Supreme Court found that the MWL does not violate the separation of powers clause of the U.S. or state constitutions or the right to due process. Several Indian tribes, environmental groups and citizens sued Washington state in 2006 contending that several sections of the MWL are unconstitutional.
Under state water law, the Washington Department of Ecology issues a certificate to use the water of the state when the water is appropriated and put to a beneficial use like a household water supply or irrigation. However, before 1998, municipalities, public utility districts and other water system providers were treated differently when the state issued water right certificates. The state issued water right permits and certificates to those providers based on needs such as accommodating future population growth, and having the “pumps and pipes” capacity to put the water to use.
The MWL was enacted by the Washington’s Legislature in 2003 to provide clarity on the nature of the pre-1998 water certificates and flexibility to municipal water suppliers in exercising their water rights. At the same time, the MWL requires those suppliers to engage in water conservation measures.
Under the law, utilities must use water efficiently. The state Department of Health includes water use efficiency requirements in its water system planning process. Utilities must demonstrate they have the water rights and the capacity to meet the needs of existing and future customers.
Not all of the opinions were positive. The Center on Environmental Law and Policy, which was on the losing side of the case, said:
Environmental plaintiffs expressed disappointment in the October 28 Washington Supreme Court decision upholding the 2003 law that purports to validate paper water rights held by public water suppliers around Washington State. The Supreme Court ruling rejects Plaintiffs’ argument that the law interferes with separation of powers between the Legislature and the Courts.
The Court’s ruling leaves the door open for case-by-case challenges to the harm caused by municipal water pumping on junior water users.
Paper water rights held by public water supplier represents water that is now flowing in rivers and aquifers. If public water purveyors are allowed to expand their rights, it will come at the expense of public values, including aquatic habitat, recreation, and water quality. Pumping will also harm junior water users.
“We have arrived at the end of the water frontier,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “When water purveyors pump their paper water rights, they will be taking from someone else. Regrettably, the Supreme Court has endorsed water chaos.”
The Court’s decision rejects a constitutional challenge, but acknowledges that municipal water users must demonstrate actual beneficial use of their water rights, and that parties harmed by expanded municipal pumping may bring individual cases to seek redress. The challenge to Washington State University’s “golf course” water rights is likely to be the first such lawsuit challenging specific application of the municipal water law.
Excerpts from the opinion:
“In 1998, this court held that under then-existing law, new private water rights did not fully vest until the water was put to a beneficial use, and not merely when the “pumps and pipes” capacity to use the water was built. Dep’t of Ecology v. Theodoratus, 135 Wn.2d 582, 586, 957 P.2d 1241 (1998). We cautioned then that we were not considering municipal water rights, which often receive separate treatment in water law. Id. at 594. In response to our opinion, the legislature amended the municipal water law, Second Engrossed Second Substitute H.B. 1338, 58th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2003) (SESSHB 1338), to, among other things, explicitly define certain nongovernmental water suppliers as municipal and to make that definition retroactive. We are now asked whether these amendments violate separation of powers or facially violate due process. We conclude they do not. We reverse in part and affirm in part. …
“While the details have changed over the years, generally, our regulatory scheme has sought to balance vigorous beneficial use of the State’s waters without impairing existing uses. To that end, Washington has a multistep procedure before new water rights can be acquired. While the details will vary depending on whether the applicant seeks to appropriate surface or ground water, among other things, the would-be user first submits an application to the Department of Ecology. RCW 90.03.250; see also ch. 90.44 RCW (ground water). The department may give the applicant a temporary permit to use water while the application is being evaluated.
“Second, once the application is complete, the department directs the applicant to publish notice in a paper of general circulation. RCW 90.03.280. Meanwhile, the department determines “what water, if any, is available . . . and find[s] and determine[s] to what beneficial use or uses it can be applied.” RCW 90.03.290(1). Fourth, if the department is satisfied that water is available and the proposed use is a beneficial use, it issues a permit specifying the amounts of water that can be taken and the beneficial uses to which that water may be applied to. RCW 90.03.290(3). A water right permit represents only an inchoate right, which does not become choate until the water right is perfected. …
“We hold that these amendments do not violate separation of powers. While nothing in this opinion should be taken to forestall a proper “as applied” challenge, the challengers have not shown that the risk that some junior rights holders’ enjoyment of their rights will be impaired by operation of these amendments facially violates due process.”