With the Washington wheat harvest just a month away, the Benton County Commission is preparing to declare a state of emergency on rural roads damaged by a combination of winter weather and spring maintenance work.
The county drew withering criticism from area farmers after spring repairs following winter storms left some stretches of gravel roads from Rattlesnake Mountain to the Horse Heaven Hills with large rocks, tipsy slopes, heavy coats of dust and other problems that impede farm vehicles.
Bud Hamilton, who raises 7,000 acres of dryland wheat on Rattlesnake Mountain, rallied two dozen farmers to plead their case at a commission meeting in May.
The county and farmers disagree on why roads were left in such rough condition. The county terminated a road department supervisor in May over the problem, but Hamilton counters employees are being unfairly blamed for orders coming from management to implement new road standards.
“The only good roads we have on Rattlesnake are the roads they haven’t touched,” he said.
The only good roads we have on Rattlesnake are the roads they haven’t touched.
Bud Hamilton, Benton County wheat farmer
The two sides do agree conditions pose a genuine challenge to area agriculture. Outsized rocks left in roads and heavy dust undermine road beds. Higher crowns meant to shed water threaten to overturn top-heavy farm vehicles. And drainage ditches in the Horse Heaven Hills block access to fields and give invasive weeds a foothold, Hamilton said.
The county acknowledged urgent need for repairs before the wheat harvest comes in.
“If the roads are not restored, limitations will likely be necessary to prevent stuck vehicles and further damage to the roadway. This work cannot be completed with current county assets within the timeframe available,” it said.
The state of emergency would allow the county roads department to waive the standard bidding process so it can get roads in shape before the wheat harvest begins in July. Repairs would be funded by the county’s road fund.
The commission will take up the matter when it meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 620 Market St., Prosser.
The county declared a separate emergency earlier this year after a rapid warmup caused flooding related to melting snow and ice. The declaration allowed the county to access Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) funds to help with repairs. It is unclear if the damage covered by the new emergency declaration will be eligible for reimbursement by FEMA.
Benton County oversees about 200 miles of gravel roads, which provide critical access to area farmers.