Almost two years after the state ordered the formation of a Groundwater Management Area to find solutions to the Lower Yakima Valley’s nitrate pollution problem, the committee in charge is still debating how to proceed.
Committee members say ongoing litigation between an environmental group and five dairies over allegations of manure pollution has created an environment more like a civil war or a live fire exercise than consensus and cooperation.
Researchers need information from farmers to understand what’s causing nitrate pollution and to find solutions, but the farmers fear if they cooperate with studies, that data could be used against them in future lawsuits.
At a committee meeting last week, member Doug Simpson, a Lower Valley irrigated crop farmer, said he’d want to know if his farming practices were contributing to the problem, but he’s concerned about guaranteed confidentiality.
“I also don’t want to lose my farm because I participated,” Simpson said.
The five dairies being sued were part of a federal Environmental Protection Agency study that identified the farms as potential sources of pollution located near contaminated wells.
While the data showed the dairies were contributing to the nitrate problem, the EPA and the dairy owners negotiated a plan to fix the contamination instead of penalties or legal action, according to Tom Eaton, EPA’s director of the Washington operations office and committee member.
Helen Reddout, the president of Community Action for the Restoration of the Environment, which brought the lawsuit, also sits on the committee. She said in a later interview that the lawsuit is a totally separate issue from the Groundwater Management District, known as GWMA for short.
“The GWMA didn’t even exist yet when we started those studies,” Reddout said.
The GWMA was created after tests of wells in part of the Lower Valley showed that about 20 percent exceeded federal standards for nitrates. Exposure to high levels of nitrates can have serious health consequences, especially for infants and pregnant women. A 2008 Yakima Herald-Republic investigation brought attention to the problem and led to state and federal studies.
Nitrate, a chemical formed when oxygen binds to nitrogen, is a key nutrient for many crops. It also forms when manure breaks down, which is why manure makes a great fertilizer. But if farmers apply more fertilizer or manure to fields than the plants can use, the excess can move through the soil and into groundwater.
Nitrate pollution can come from other sources as well, such as leaking septic tanks or municipal and industrial wastewater storage, but a 2013 EPA report cites agricultural practices as the area’s “likely sources.”
Developing legal protection to convince farmers to provide data is just one of the GWMA’s many roadblocks. The committee is still trying to decide how to design the studies they need and what their deadlines should be.
Last week, the committee even had to postpone voting to approve its goals and objectives.
The problem? An earlier draft listed several deadlines, including one for a progress report to the public this year. The deadlines were removed because they now seemed unrealistic. But no new goals have replaced them.
Despite a facilitator who works to keep the meetings moving and the debate productive, finding consensus is hard for the 22-person committee made up of representatives of federal, state and county agencies, farmers, environmentalists and community members.
The committee’s rules prevent individual members from expressing opinions to the media on whether progress is being made unless they have first coordinated with the committee chairman, Yakima County Commissioner Rand Elliot. Elliot or his alternate, Vern Redifer, Yakima County’s public service director, serve as the group’s spokesmen.
Redifer said that although the meetings can be a bit like sausage making, he believes the committee and its smaller working groups have been making progress.
“We have really been in a mode of discovery, just understanding that there is no one quick fix,” Redifer said. “If it was easy, it’d been done a long time ago.”
He believes the committee can put a program together by 2015, but he wants to make sure they also take enough time to get things right.
“The faster we get a program put together, the faster we can get on the ground improvements,” Redifer said.
The Legislature has allocated $2.3 million to the GWMA to develop a plan to reduce nitrate levels.
So far, it hasn’t spent much of that money -- the first $300,000 allocation included about $4,000 a month for the facilitator, $60,000 to Yakima County for administrative work and $25,000 on education and outreach.
The remainder is waiting for the committee to decide on soil and water testing options, Redifer said.
The committee also has contracted with a consulting firm study existing data and regulations, Redifer said.
The program it intends to eventually develop will focus on reducing new nitrate pollution, while existing nitrate will slowly break down over time. Treating all the groundwater would be extremely cost-prohibitive, Kirk Cook with the state Department of Agriculture said at last week’s meeting.
At that meeting, Cook presented several options to the committee for groundwater models that would show where the pollution is coming from and test various management solutions to see what will solve the problems.
In the discussion that followed, the group was split on whether such modeling, which requires time and money, was necessary.
“We’re not going to reduce 1 pound of nitrate through modeling, but it will tell us where the problem is coming from and how to solve it,” Eaton said.
He added that even once all sources of nitrate pollution have stopped, it will take time for levels in wells to drop.
Having a predictive model would enable the group to say to the community, “We’ve done all we can and now we just need to wait.”
The fact that the model could point to who was causing the problems appeals to regulators but not farmers, Cook said. He said fixing the problem requires focusing more on what causes nitrate pollution than who.
That issue aside, models cost money and Troy Peters, a committee member and scientist with Washington State University, said the money might be better spent helping farmers change practices to reduce nitrate pollution.
“I think we know what we need to do, which is water management and nutrient management,” Peters said.
Consultants can work with farmers to test soils and prevent over-watering and over-applying fertilizer.
One example is that large dairies produce lots of manure in a small area, which can become a liability, Peters said.
Meanwhile, other farmers in the region buy fertilizers. If the GWMA supported a program to haul manure from dairies to fields that could actually use it would be a win-win for farmers and groundwater, he said.
Deciding to move forward with any or all of these tools will have to wait for future GWMA meetings.