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Water quality in Yakima basin improving

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Gregory Bohn (R), a water quality specialist for the Department of Ecology, listens to Selah Jr. High School students at Wednesday's open house sponsored by the Department of Ecology. The students are (L-R) Joel Freeborn, Brad White and Jimmy Wood.

How clean is the water in our rivers and streams in the Yakima River Basin?

To answer that question the Washington State Department of Ecology hosted an open house Wednesday at the Yakima Area Arboretum.

"We wanted to give the general public an opportunity to learn about the water quality in the Yakima River Basin," Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokesperson for the Department of Ecology, said. "We want to let people know the state is looking at the water quality in the Yakima Basin and to let people know about the current water projects that are being planned and are on going."

Redfield-Wilder also said the Department of Ecology is interested in what the people have to say and what they would like to see done.

According to the Department of Ecology, the Yakima River and several area creeks and tributaries violate federal water quality standards for levels of pesticides, bacteria, pH, dissolved oxygen and temperature.

In response, the Department of Ecology has worked with farmers, cities, counties, communities and other state and federal agencies to identify pollution sources and develop plans to reduce water pollution and improve water quality.

One such ongoing project is at the Granger Drain. The drain was built many years ago to take excess water away from the fields and to keep the soil from getting to much of a salt build-up.

According to the Department of Ecology, in 1995 the drain was dumping 60 tons of suspended sediment into the Yakima River every day.

Before, farmers were practicing rill irrigation. This is when the farmer pours water into a trench that runs along their crops. They basically flood the fields to water their crops.

All that extra water was running off into the drain carrying a large amount of the top soil. Attached to the top soil were pesticides, fertilizers, including DDT, which hasn't been used in over 30 years, and fecal coliform bacteria.

According to the Department of Ecology, fecal coliform are a group of bacteria found in the feces of warm blooded animals, such as people, livestock, pets and wildlife. The amount of fecal coliform in a stream or lake increases with the amount of sewage and/or manure run-off.

A long history of illness outbreaks and epidemics has demonstrated a relationship between the presence of fecal coliform bacteria and the presence of illness causing viruses and bacteria, called pathogens. These pathogens can be accidentally swallowed when people are swimming or playing in water and are exposed to pathogens when they enter the body through small cuts, abrasions or mucus membranes.

Illnesses associated with fecal coliform pathogens can be minor or very severe. Either way, a person doesn't want to contract one.

The state sent in the Department of Ecology to try to find ways to reduce the pollution from the Granger Drain that was in turn polluting the Yakima River.

"Farmers have switched from flooding their fields with water to using sprinklers and drip systems," Gregory Bohn, a water quality specialist for the Department of Ecology, said. "This reduced the run-off and that reduced the amount of top soil that was being carried into the drain."

By using sprinklers, most of the water stayed in the soil and filtered through the dirt before entering the drain instead of just running off into the drain.

The biggest benefit to this was it saved much of the top soil. Because of this the farmers didn't have to use as much pesticides and fertilizers.

Also, the state brought the dairy farms under regulation which required them to manage their waste water and manure.

Every dairy has to have a written waste management plan and follow it through.

Because of these new farming methods, the water quality coming from the Granger Drain has greatly improved. In 2003 the average amount of sediment dumped into the Yakima River was 13 tons, down from 60 tons in 1995.

"We've had a 75 percent decrease of fecal coliform bacteria in the last four years," Bohn said.

"We want to give the farmers a lot of the credit for reducing the run-off," Redfield-Wilder added.

Another project that will be tackled in the next few years is at the Sulphur Creek drain. This creek runs through the center of Sunnyside and it has been identified as having a fecal coliform bacteria problem.

The cause will be harder to find because not only do farms have run-off that goes into the drain but there is also urban run-off, industrial waste, city sewer treatment plant discharge, pet waste and septic tanks that leak.

In 1995 Sulphur Creek averaged 110 tons of sediment per day and in 2003 that figure was down to 17 tons per day. The reason for this is the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District and area farmers voluntarily deciding to tackle water quality concerns along the Yakima River in 1998. SVID was even honored with an Environmental Excellence Award for its efforts.

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