Dear Friends and Neighbors,
It's been exactly one month since the Legislature adjourned its one-day special session on May 16. However, as your state representative, I work for you throughout the year, not just when the Legislature is in session.
As I mentioned in my last email update, I've also been spending a lot of time on our Garfield County farm, spraying and seeding fields, fixing equipment and becoming reacquainted with our agricultural way of life. Spending that much time on a tractor renews my perspective of how hard our folks in Eastern Washington work to make ends meet and also reminds me of what we do in Olympia it is so important to protect and preserve our way of life.
In case you missed it, I encourage you to read my last update, which reflects on the successes and disappointments of the 105-day regular session which ended April 23.
Please also read on for an update on the new drug possession law, the new police pursuit law, financial support for our local fire districts that use aerial suppression on wildfires, and our work to secure more water for our farmers across the vast Columbia Basin.
Restoring public safety
Crime and drug abuse in cities and communities across our state have exploded over the last two years, in part because of changes made by the Legislature in 2021 (that I voted against) that relaxed state laws.
One of those new laws in 2021 prevented police from pursuing vehicles unless they had probable cause that a crime had been committed. This allowed criminals to just drive off and, in many cases, police were prohibited from pursuing them. It also led to a spike in vehicle thefts. Before 2021, the statewide record for stolen cars in a single year was 30,000. After the new law, that record was shattered, with nearly 47,000 stolen vehicles.
We fought hard in the House and Senate to restore the police pursuit law to allow pursuits under “reasonable suspicion” so that criminals can be held accountable. What ended up passing was a watered-down bill that would allow police pursuits under a reasonable suspicion standard of those committing a violent crime, a sex offense, domestic violence-related offense, vehicle assault, driving under the influence, and trying to escape. Disappointingly, it does not allow pursuits of stolen vehicles, and police must still stand down with non-violent crimes.
Blake fix on drugs
After failing to reach agreement on a so-called “Blake Fix” in the final hours of the 2023 session, negotiators for the four caucuses reached a compromise in early May. We returned to the Capitol on May 16 and during the one-day special session passed an update to the state's drug possession law.
All of this is because in February 2021, the state Supreme Court threw out Washington's felony drug possession law under the “State v. Blake” decision. It was important we act because a temporary law following the court decision that made drug possession a misdemeanor was set to expire July 1, which would have legalized all hard drugs in Washington state.
Under the new policy, possession, as well as illegal drug use in public, will be gross misdemeanors punishable on first and second offenses with up to 180 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. With a third violation, the possible jail term rises to 364 days. The bill gives prosecutors and judges more flexibility to use a compassionate, yet accountable “carrot and stick” approach to get addicts into treatment but retain jail time if they don't accept the help they need.
While I appreciate the hard work of our Republican negotiators, I joined with my seatmates, Sen. Schoesler and Rep. Schmick, in voting no. Although the bill was better than previous versions, we felt it still falls short of meaningful reforms and won't discourage drug use in our communities.
Wildfire aerial suppression bill finally becomes law
Seven years ago, Asotin County Fire District 1 Chief Noel Hardin brought a suggestion to me for legislation. Chief Hardin explained that when a brush fire breaks out in hard-to-access areas, local fire officials must make the difficult choice of whether to use contracted aerial suppression services to snuff the fire quickly or wait for state mobilization help from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Aerial suppression, using helicopters and airplanes, can make a big difference during initial attack, but they're expensive – as much as $2,500 an hour. And many fire districts cannot afford the cost. However, the process of getting state mobilization can take many hours. In that time, a small fire can turn into a raging inferno that eventually costs the state millions of dollars to contain.
Hardin suggested the state reimburse local fire districts for their costs of using aerial suppression to attack a wildland fire when it initially breaks out.
Since 2016, I have introduced this bill every biennium. It frequently passed committee but stalled every year in the House Appropriations Committee. So this year, I teamed up with Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, a pilot and senior member of the Legislative Wildfire Caucus, and DNR Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Together, we brought House Bill 1498 over the finish line. It passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously. With Chief Hardin present, Gov. Jay Inslee signed it.
“We will now be provided with funding to help mitigate and keep fires small and reduce the need for mobilization,” said Hardin. “We will also see less damage to private, state, and federal lands we protect. Most importantly, it will be safer for firefighters and the citizens we are charged to protect.”
Top U.S. and state officials tour Columbia Basin Project, discuss Odessa groundwater replacement
In 1922, the Columbia Basin Irrigation League (CBIL) was formed. Just a year later, Congress passed a bill allowing an investigation of the irrigation project with appropriations of $100,000. This was the very beginning of the process that led to construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest dam in the world at the time, to help provide irrigation to the Columbia Basin, and power to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. It was also the beginning of one of the largest irrigation efforts in the nation, the Columbia Basin Project.
The original project called for an area of canals to irrigate the full 1.2 million acres in the Columbia Plateau, which was a dusty, dry and laborious place to live. Pioneer farmers knew the rich soil had potential, but average rainfall was less than 10 inches annually. Dryland farming was challenging. Thanks to the Grand Coulee Dam, and the massive John W. Keys III pump generating plant completed at the dam in 1951, the 12 pumps move water into a canal that flows into Banks Lake, which provides irrigation water to more than 670,000 acres in the Columbia Basin Project. It was largely funded from revenues from the third powerhouse at the dam. This has helped to create an agriculture-based economy in Eastern Washington, providing thousands of farm-family jobs.
Yet, it was still less than half of the original intended project. The eastern portion of the project across the Odessa subaquifer was never completed. Unfortunately, the project waned in the 1960s and the Department of Ecology issued deep well permits in those areas to provide water temporarily.
For 50 years, those wells have sustained agriculture, food processing, jobs and families in those communities. However, those wells are drying up. In some of those wells, pumped water is emerging at nearly 115 degrees Fahrenheit and loaded with salt, which is very destructive to our agricultural lands.
A team of legislators, including Sen. Schoesler, Sen. Judy Warnick, Sen. Jim Honeyford (now retired), Rep. Tom Dent and myself, have worked together on the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project, which would replace the deep wells on 90,000 acres with surface water from the Columbia Basin Project. This year, our legislative team, with the support of the Capital Budget committees in both the House and Senate, were able to secure state funding of $32.8 million for this project.
I've also been to the White House several times with my colleagues, met with President Trump's cabinet, and have worked with our congressional delegation to push this project forward. On April 7, 2022, 100 years after formation of the CBIL, Congress approved planning for the federal portion of the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project.
On Tuesday, I was honored to accompany U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Terry Cosby, and NRCS West Regional Conservationist Astor Boozer on a tour of the Columbia Basin Project, hosted by the Columbia Basin Conservation District from Moses Lake. We were also joined by Washington State Conservationist Roylene Comes at Night, Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison, and Department of Ecology Office of Columbia River Director Tom Tebb. We started the tour near Moses Lake along the East Low Canal down to Connell and back to Othello.
NRCS administers agriculture conservation programs and funding for watersheds. Chief Cosby told us federal U.S.D.A. money is available, but he recommended we get the application for the funding submitted as quickly as possible so that the project can move forward. That is our intent.
The following day, Wednesday, I toured Grand Coulee Dam and the Keys pumping plant with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and Regional Director Jennifer Carrington, who were celebrating the 120th anniversary of the agency.
I ended the day at Barker Ranch near the Tri-Cities with National Association of Conservation Districts Past President Michael Crowder. We were joined by Senators Schoesler and Warnick, and Rep. Dent.
It's impressive these top U.S. officials were in Washington state this week specifically to tour the Columbia Basin Project. It is my hope that someday the dream of 100 years ago is fully realized. The Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project is a wonderful first step to this goal.
Please stay in touch!
As I noted above, I work for you throughout the year. If you have questions, comments or suggestions about state government and legislation, please contact my office in Olympia. I have also been honored to be asked to speak at various events and locations about our work in the 9th District and at the state Capitol. Please contact my office if you would be interested in having me speak to your group.
Thank you for allowing me to serve and represent you!