Franklin County to put tax on ballot

Franklin County commissioners will allow a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot in Kahlotus and Mesa that would impose a $5 per parcel tax to help protect the region's deep water supplies.

The so-called aquifer protection tax would raise about $40,000 to benefit the Ground Water Management Area project, which is based in Othello and focuses on north Franklin County along with Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties, to work on finding a water source to replenish deep irrigation water well resources that are drying up.

Commissioner Bob Koch of Connell, who is on the GWMA board, told fellow commissioners Wednesday that the project has run out of sources for state grants, leaving the counties and farm communities with nowhere to turn except themselves.

Koch noted that Connell chose not to join with the city councils of Mesa and Kahlotus, which asked commissioners to put the local tax measure before their voters.

Koch said the project has tapped the state Legislature for money in the past, and that it takes about $1 million a year to continue the study that monitors deep wells for irrigating crops on about 330,000 acres in the four counties.

"Time is of the essence," Koch said, noting the commission had to act within a week to meet deadlines for placing the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Deep wells, some as far down at 3,000 feet, are exhausting ancient water sources.

The Herald reported three years ago that GWMA Executive Director Paul Stoker considered the situation urgent for the future of farming in the affected area.

Deep layers of basalt under about 8,000 square miles in Eastern Washington have forced farmers to drill a long way to get water, and once they do, the same basalt offers little chance for surface water to trickle down and to recharge the aquifer, Stoker explained.

The GWMA project is trying to map the water flows in the aquifer, hoping to discover a way to move water more easily in and out of the aquifer.

Koch said the $40,000 that would come from the voter-approved tax in Kahlotus and Mesa would hardly be a drop in the bucket to meet GWMA's financial need.

Koch said GWMA would like to have $1 million, but with Grant County commissioners not backing the ballot measure, that means a loss of about $513,000.

And since Franklin County gets most of its irrigation water from the river, there is no reason to put the aquifer protection tax measure on a countywide ballot, Koch said.

That means another $200,000 in potential taxes from Franklin County landowners is unattainable.

GWMA representative Scott Cave, who attended Wednesday's commission meeting urging support for the ballot measure, said many agricultural land owners in the four-county study area realize the problem and want a solution, but there has been some question about the legality of proposing an aquifer tax. He said that is why Grant County commissioners held back.

Franklin County commissioners unanimously supported Kahlotus and Mesa cities' request to put the aquifer protection tax measure on the ballot. But Chairman Brad Peck said he was honoring the cities' request more than saying he was a proponent of a new tax.