"Proper water management is critical to our well-being, our environment, our economic success and our public safety," Locke told about 250 people in Tacoma.
Locke spoke at the Department of Ecology's annual statewide water planning conference. The audience included state employees and representatives of tribes, cities, counties, water districts and public utilities.
Investments must be made to ensure drinking water supplies, set aside water for irrigation, conserve existing water supplies and remove barriers to fish passage, he said.
About a year ago, at the same meeting, the governor announced a plan to borrow $1 billion for water projects. It's still a sound idea, but it's no longer realistic because the state's economy is in tough shape, Locke said.
The Legislature faces an estimated $2 billion revenue shortfall and voters refuse to be taxed for transportation, he noted.
"Funding will be a major challenge," Locke said. "There are serious limits on the willingness to make new investments."
Nevertheless, Locke said he's determined to begin making needed investments by giving high priority to the state's critical water needs. He promised to seek federal matching funds and support legislation authorizing local-option taxes for water projects.
Locke cited several examples of the need for continued investment in water. He said a federal study completed three years ago estimated that it would cost $4 billion to keep state drinking water systems in compliance with regulations over the next 20 years. One problem is excess arsenic, which contaminates more than 200 of the state's water systems, serving 650,000 residents.
The governor also said demand for water exceeds supply in 16 of the state's 62 watershed planning areas, leading to conflicts between municipal water users, farmers and fish.
At the same time, failed culverts and other barriers impede migration of dwindling stocks of native salmon, some of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.