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Farm Bureau questions if storm water utility fee warranted

When it comes to addressing Yakima County's storm water problems, there are still a lot of things up in the air.

One of which is, do problems really exist?

Since the beginning of the year the Yakima County Storm Water Task Force has been looking into the county's storm water issues, working to ensure that the county is adhering to several federal laws, particularly the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems Permit Program.

Yakima County Surface Water Manager John Knutson explained that the program mandates the county to ensure that storm water doesn't pollute surface water, noting that it is part of the Clean Water Act. Knutson added that this is a program that is only required in the Urban Growth areas that surround the cities of Union Gap, Yakima and Selah. He explained that the program is only applicable to those three cities in the Yakima Valley.

But, another storm water program that will affect all areas of Yakima County falls under the mandates of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Knutson explained the act requires the county to ensure storm water that seeps into the ground does not pollute ground water.

According to Knutson, the county is working to figure out how to raise the estimated $900,000 needed to fund the two storm water programs. He added that the funds will have to be raised annually to pay for the ongoing programs.

One option the county is looking at to help raise funds for the two programs would be to implement a storm water utility fee. Knutson said the utility fee would be set up so those in urban areas would pay more than those living in rural areas, or in such a way that those living in urban areas would pay for the first portion of the program while rural residents would be added in at a later date.

Knutson said rural areas will likely be treated differently because the concentration of pollutants is greater in urban areas.

According to Knutson, the county is first trying to tackle the National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems Permit Program.

Although county staff seems to be interested in pursuing the idea of putting together a storm water utility fee it does not appear as though all five members of the task force are in agreement.

Mark Barrett with the Yakima County Farm Bureau and a member of the task force explained that the task force has yet to make its formal recommendation on what the county should do about storm water. He noted that the task force should be making its recommendation to the county commissioners in the next few weeks.

Despite the county not having heard from the task force, Barrett said the group was recently notified that the county is moving forward to try to secure a certain amount of funding for the storm water programs.

"The county has a plan it wants to adopt," Barrett said.

Barrett feels the county is trying to implement a large scale program to deal with storm water, a program that he said could possibly end up employing anywhere from seven to 10 people.

"We're putting a piece together with very little extra employees needed," Barrett said of the recommendation the task force is currently writing.

He explained that the group is working to address all of the issues the new laws require be dealt with, although he noted there are plenty of programs already in place that deal with many of the storm water issues. Barrett said, for example, that the county already has a flood control plan in place that contains storm water provisions.

"They (the county) are trying to ignore we have that," Barrett said.

The Yakima County Farm Bureau recently released a statement in opposition of what is happening at the county level in regards to storm water.

The statement reads, "We believe existing programs, including the county-wide Flood Control District and the Yakima County Critical Areas Ordinance, adequately address storm water issues in Yakima County. The Yakima County Farm Bureau is adamant that any discussions regarding the taxation of rural or urban agricultural lands end today."

Another task force member, Larry Matson with the Department of Transportation, said he thinks the group is leaning toward not supporting a utility fee, at least not where agricultural areas are concerned.

Matson said one of the reasons the task force is leaning this way is because, for example, larger dairy owners typically keep storm water on site, which means that their storm water is not an issue when it comes to water quality.

"When you get out into large agricultural parcels, five and 10 acres, it just doesn't make sense," Matson said of charging a storm water fee in rural areas.

Matson added that data supports the idea that 75 to 100 percent of the pollution associated with storm water comes from urban areas.

Matson also noted that the task force is looking at other programs that are already in place, that deal with storm water issues, to see if they cover the same issues that need to be taken care of because of the new storm water regulations.

Frank Hendrix, a task force member who works for the Washington State University extension office in Yakima, said the task force is still trying to determine if a problem even exists.

Yakima County Farm Bureau President Jerri Honeyford of Sunnyside said there hasn't been any credible data presented yet that even indicates there is a storm water problem in Yakima County.

"Why should we have to pay a storm water tax when there's not a problem?" she asked.

Yakima County Commissioner Ron Gamache, the commissioner overseeing the task force, said once the task force makes its formal recommendation to the commissioners, they will proceed to get a storm water plan in place soon.

He said the commissioners are hoping the task force will recommend that a storm water program be implemented through the use of a small pilot program so it can be reviewed later.

Gamache said the commissioners realize when it comes to storm water and complying with new laws that some source of funding will be needed. He added that the implementation of a utility fee is something that "...is a very strong possibility."

Honeyford contends such a fee is not warranted.

"This isn't mandated," she said. "It's a growth of county bureaucracy. We already have other programs in place that deal with these types of issues.

"There are no storm water problems on our farms," Honeyford added.

Hendrix noted that once the task force has made its recommendation to the county commissioners, what will happen next is up to the commissioners.

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