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Legislature unanimously passes Nooksack adjudication bill

Environmental bills see success in state Legislature

Farmers are the dominant water users in Whatcom County
Farmers are the dominant water users in Whatcom County (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

The bulk of Washington state’s $69.5 billion biennial budget recently approved by the Legislature will go toward other needs, but significant funds have been set aside for environmental and climate change goals across the state, including Northwest Washington. 

Whatcom County

Political newcomer Joe Timmons, of Bellingham, saw success in his first legislative session, where he sponsored House Bill 1792, which examined timelines and procedures for the impending Nooksack River water rights adjudication process. 

Adjudication, expected to start later this summer, marks the start of a long legal process to determine who has rights to water in Whatcom County. Timmons’ bill, co-sponsored by Whatcom and Skagit representatives Debra Lekanoff, Alicia Rule and Alex Ramel, among others, will make it easier for water rights holders to file court claims throughout the adjudication process. 

The bill had unanimous support in both the House and the Senate, and was supported behind the scenes by the Whatcom Public Utility District (PUD), the county government, the City of Bellingham, the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe. 

“Whatcom County PUD is proud of the part we played in helping to create this bill and want to congratulate everyone involved,” Whatcom County PUD General Manager Chris Heimgartner said in a statement. “We are grateful for the leadership of Representative Timmons, who successfully advanced the bill through the Legislature with unanimous support. His hard work will benefit folks in Whatcom County and the Nooksack Watershed.”

Northwest Washington 

New legislation to protect the endangered Southern Resident orcas, sponsored by 40th District Rep. Liz Lovelett, will take effect in the next two years. Senate Bill 5371 will require boats and vessels in Puget Sound to maintain a 1,000-yard buffer between them and the endangered whales. 

Noise disturbance from vessels is contributing to the orcas’ inability to catch salmon, and degrading existing habitat in the region. Just 73 Southern Residents — ecologically distinct killer whales that hunt chinook salmon — remain in the waters along the west coast. Other orca subgroups that rely more heavily on marine mammals for sustenance have not experienced similar declines. 

Though the legislation passed, scientists and researchers say it may not be effective, as the “right” buffer distance for vessels has yet to be determined. 

Statewide legislation

A popular Growth Management Act amendment, which requires large counties and cities across Washington to consider climate change in growth planning and shoreline management, passed through the Legislature this year. 

The act, a series of statutes and laws initially adopted in 1990, is designed to help cities and counties manage population growth through transportation, affordable housing, environmental protection and industry goals, among others. Prior to the new amendment, the act included 14 goals. With the new amendment, the act now has 15, including one related to climate resiliency.

The amendment — House Bill 1181 — was proposed by Lovelett and 1st District Rep. Davina Duerr. 

“This bill is an important step forward for local governments to plan ahead and be prepared for the challenges posed by climate change,” Lovelett said in a news release. “Our state has long been a leader on climate action, and this policy will help to ensure that our development is sustainable, that our communities and infrastructure are resilient, and that we are protecting our open spaces and quality of life for future generations to enjoy.”

The bill, Lovelett and Duerr said in the release, would increase housing capacity in urban areas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollution in historically impacted communities and address adverse impacts of extreme weather events across the state. 

Forest-related legislation was also a big fight at the state level this legislative session. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) advocated for several bills, including Senate Bill 5372, which expanded the DNR’s ability to protect state-owned forests from logging. The department also pushed for funding to protect “legacy forests,” and received $70 million to protect near-old-growth trees on state lands. 

House Bill 1789, which would authorize DNR’s pilot carbon program and could protect other legacy forests like the Bessie Sorts and Brokedown Palace tree stands, failed to pass out of the Legislature. 

Looking forward

Several bills targeting the state’s climate commitment goals failed to make it through the Legislature this session, though could come back in future sessions. 

A House proposal to create “tree banks,” or areas for developers to plant trees after clearcutting spaces for new housing or construction across Washington, failed to make it out of committee this session. 

Another bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Curtis King from Yakima, proposed a tax break for people buying hybrid vehicles. The goal was to create a more affordable “stepping stone” for drivers who want to make the transition away from gas-powered cars, but can’t afford the high price tag. 

Though the legislation didn’t pass this year, similar efforts will likely come back in the coming sessions, as Washington looks to kick gas-powered cars to the curb by 2030. 

A similar measure failed to pass the Legislature in the 2022 session.

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