Sudden demise of House riparian-buffer bill makes SB 5353 only riparian protection proposal of its kind left in 2023 session
On its final day this legislative session to endorse Senate policy bills, the Senate Ways and Means Committee backed legislation from Sen. Keith Wagoner that would give up to 12 additional counties another opportunity to participate in the state’s Voluntary Stewardship Program.
The positive vote on Senate Bill 5353 was welcome news to agriculture groups and tribes, after a bipartisan riparian-buffer bill many had supported failed to advance out of the House Capital Budget Committee – a surprising result attributed primarily to opposition from Gov. Jay Inslee.
“It was a Cinderella story of legislation right up until the slipper didn’t fit,” Wagoner said, referring to the unexpected demise of House Bill 1720.
“What a disappointing end that is, to what was shaping up to be a great story of agriculture, tribes and conservationists coming together with members of both parties to put forth a truly bipartisan, balanced piece of legislation.
“I am pleased that the Senate is moving my volunteer-stewardship bill forward, giving us the chance to continue the bipartisan work that Washingtonians deserve and we all want to see.”
The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) offers an alternative approach for protecting critical areas on lands where agricultural uses exist. It is limited to 27 of Washington’s 39 counties, but under Wagoner’s proposal, the 2012 deadline in state law for counties to take part in the VSP would be removed, opening up the program statewide. His measure would also allow any counties joining the program to access funding for riparian projects.
“The goal of the program is to stop pitting rural landowners, agriculture communities, environmentalists, tribes, and regulators against one another. A Draconian, punitive, and forced approach would only sour cooperation, harm compliance and potentially lead to putting some farms out of business altogether,” warned Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley. “Senate Bill 5353 is about taking the opposite approach – having all sides work cooperatively to both improve our critical areas, while also preserving our farmlands.
“It’s a difficult balance to reach, but we’ve done it with this program.”
Wagoner also stressed how, unlike the failed approach offered by the Democrat majority in the House in previous years, his bill is about making the most of a program that has already proven successful.
“I have seen voluntary stewardship programs work, specifically in protecting critical lands along the Skagit River,” Wagoner added. “Voluntary programs, where we work together with conservation districts, property owners, environmental groups and the tribes produce better results than when we try to mandate a single solution on all property owners. Skagit County is proof of that.”
SB 5353 now heads to the Rules Committee, the last stop before a potential vote by the full Senate.