Owners of an orchard on the Touchet River have reached a settlement agreement with the state Department of Ecology that will cost them $50,000 after being accused of illegal watering during the 2015 drought.
The agreement calls for Warren Orchards in Columbia County to allow an easement on 20 acres along the river for projects to improve critical habitat for threatened steelhead. After a value is set on the easement, Warren Orchards will accept a $20,000 reduction in payment.
“This is an important outcome because it provides an environmental benefit to the region where this illegal water use occurred,” said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder. Warren Orchards did not admit guilt in the settlement.
The total value of the settlement of $50,000 is among one of the largest negotiated by Ecology’s Water Resources Program, said Keith Stoffel, manager of the Water Resources Program for the Eastern Washington Region.
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When Ecology issued a proposed fine of $73,530 to Warren Orchards in late 2015, it was the largest fine to date by the Water Resources Program. Warren Orchards appealed.
During the drought of 2015, Warren Orchards was among 67 junior water rights holders told to curtail water use in early July to save the water for endangered fish and for farmers with senior water rights.
The Touchet Eastside/Westside Irrigation District, which has senior rights dating to 1883, had asked that its rights to the water be preserved.
Rivers are crucial not only to irrigators, but endangered fish. We have to balance water use.
Joye Redfield-Wilder, Ecology spokeswoman
Because of the drought, the state hired a water technician to help monitor use.
On Aug. 18, 2015, the water technician took photographs of night time irrigation at Warren Orchards using drip lines, according to the state. Warren Orchards is planted with 55 acres of apple trees and 45 acres of pear trees.
The state said Warren Orchards illegally used an estimated 90 acre-feet of water during the drought. It proposed a fine based on the value of the water the state has purchased in the Touchet River Basin in recent years. It could have proposed a larger fine, but chose not to because Warren Orchards had no previous penalties.
Other farmers were depending on water they held rights to, and use had to be balanced with the needs of steelhead, Redfield-Wilder said.
The $30,000 penalty will be paid into the state general fund. If terms of the settlement are met, the state will excuse the remainder of the fine after two years.
The land to be placed into a conservation easement is downstream from the orchard. The easement will prohibit future development, but may allowed continued agricultural use, according to the state.