Benton commissioners to back grant for groundwater sampling

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldNovember 13, 2013 

The Benton Conservation District is seeking a state grant to pay for some groundwater sampling and community outreach -- envisioned as a first step toward creating a program to study and address nitrate contamination in local aquifers.

Benton County commissioners, during their regular meeting Tuesday, agreed to send a letter supporting the grant application. The work could begin next summer if the grant request is successful, said Mark Nielson, district manager.

His agency is seeking $250,000 from the state Department of Ecology's Centennial Clean Water grant program. Some local matching dollars also would be needed, with the conservation district expected to contribute the bulk.

The grant would be used to pay for sampling enough domestic wells to "characterize the extent of the nitrate problem in Benton County's groundwater," according to information provided to county commissioners.

Also, "an outreach effort would be designed to involve stakeholders" -- from residents to agriculture groups -- "and educate those with greatest health risks," the information said.

High nitrate levels in drinking water can cause health problems, with infants, pregnant women and adults with reduced stomach acidity especially at risk, the information said. A growing number of domestic wells in Benton County are showing nitrate levels higher than what's considered a safe level, the information said.

A portion of Benton County, from the western boundary to Benton City, was included in the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area, which was formed to look at the nitrate issue. But the county withdrew earlier this year, in part because officials wanted to deal with the nitrate issue on a countywide basis, the information said.

Also Tuesday:

-- Commissioners discussed a seventh Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge position, which was authorized by the state earlier this year but needs local dollars. They didn't take a vote, but the consensus seemed to be that they want to wait until the 2015-16 budget cycle to consider funding the post.

The state will pay for benefits and half the salary, with the two counties responsible for the rest of the salary. Benton County, the larger of the two counties, would pay a larger share.

Franklin County commissioners are in the midst of settling on their county's budget for next year, and have factored in their portion of the judge salary for the second half of 2014.

But Benton County already has its 2013-14 operating budget in place. Commissioners adopted the spending plan last year, after a difficult process that involved grappling with a projected multimillion shortfall.

Commissioner Shon Small said during the meeting that he feels "it would probably be in our best interest if we just stand fast and assess the situation and take a look at doing the seventh judge for the budget of 2015-16."

The topic came up at the end of the meeting and wasn't on the agenda. Pat Austin, court administrator, was there and spoke with commissioners. But she said she expects the current Superior Court judges also will want to weigh in and talk with commissioners in the coming weeks.

Court officials have said the seventh judge position is needed to help with the growing caseload.

-- Commissioner Jim Beaver was selected to be chairman of the board of commissioners next year.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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