Franklin County commissioners couldn't decide what to do with a request from an agency seeking to protect groundwater in a four-county area at their Wednesday meeting.
Paul Stoker, general manager for the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area, asked commissioners for their approval for the agency to seek a grant from the state Department of Ecology's Office of Columbia River for a project to try to improve water wells serving Moses Lake and Othello.
Even though the wells are outside Franklin County, the groundwater management area still needs to seek support from the commissions in each county it represents.
The aquifers the 23 communities in the management area draw from has dropped from more than 50 million acre-feet of accessible water in 1960 down to 10 million, Stoker said. And another million acre-feet are pumped each year.
An acre-foot of water is the amount of water needed to cover an acre with a foot of water.
The process being studied could be done in Franklin County communities like Connell, Kahlotus and Basin City in the future, even though Moses Lake is in Grant County and Othello is in Adams County, Stoker said. While the majority of Pasco's drinking water comes from the Columbia River, he said smaller cities rely on groundwater.
"You are on the verge of a catastrophe," he told commissioners. "I don't think you appreciate it, but you are."
Commissioner Bob Koch made a motion to not only reject the proposal to support the project, but also to pull out of the groundwater management area entirely. He read a letter, written this week, from Grant County, one of three others in the management area, saying it had ended its relationship with the agency and Stoker.
The letter caught Stoker by surprise because he hadn't seen it, he said.
The management area needs support from at least three of the four counties, which also includes Adams and Lincoln counties, to continue. That means that the agency will dissolve if Franklin County withdraws.
But Koch's motion died from lack of a second. Commissioner Brad Peck then made a motion to keep Franklin County in the management area, but not to take part in the project for Moses Lake and Othello. He said the management area has helped the county and the county doesn't have to pay for it because it is funded by the Franklin Conservation District.
But Peck's motion also failed to find a second. He said he couldn't recall two motions on the same issue dying for lack of a second since he was elected to the board in 2008.
Commission Chairman Rick Miller said the project could help Franklin County.
"I do know that a lot of these cities are losing their water," he said. "Othello does a lot of shopping and things here."
That left commissioners to put the issue off until next week's meeting.
Koch told the Herald the management area appeared to have run its course after 15 years.
"The wells are dropping, but we need to know how to cure that problem, and it's not coming from this study," he said. "They're not telling us how to cure the problem."
The study in Moses Lake and Othello would look at ways to store surface water that would be injected into underground formations during the winter for storage until summer, when demand is greater, said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder.
"Will it leak away, or will it be maintained and be able to be drawn at a later time?" she said.
Ecology still is taking proposals on the project, which it has set aside around $500,000 for, Redfield-Wilder said.
"It's kind of a new concept," she said. "If it works, it can be less expensive and have less environmental impact than building a big dam or reservoir."
But even if it works in Moses Lake or Othello, that doesn't mean it will work everywhere, she cautioned.
"Some places are just not suitable for it," she said.
Redfield-Wilder said she didn't know how Moses Lake's participation in the project would be affected by the withdrawal from the groundwater management area by Grant County, where the city is located.
Also Wednesday, commissioners opened two bids for safety improvements for an eighth of a mile stretch of Wahluke Road in the northwestern part of the county. County engineer Matt Rasmussen said the project will include new guardrails and slope stabilization. GeoStabilization International of Grand Junction, Colo., had the low bid of $292,229. The engineer's estimate was $305,000. They are expected to vote on the bid next week.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom