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Washington dairy farmers urge creation of groundwater authority

The Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting last week in Zillah to solicit comments about private, contaminated wells in the Yakima Valley.

The meeting was due in part because of a study performed by Heritage University five years ago that showed concerns in shallow ground water aquifers.

Federal guidelines state drinking water must not have more than 10 parts per million in nitrates.

Jay Gordon, executive director for the Washington State Dairy Federation, said the study showed ground water in some areas in the Lower Yakima Valley were found to contain an amount of nitrates above federal guidelines.

He said last week's meeting in Zillah was an attempt by the EPA to bring together different agencies in the state and county to discuss these concerns.

This meeting has caused some concern among some in the Lower Valley, most notably Washington State Senator Jim Honeyford and Washington State representatives Bruce Chandler and Dan Newhouse.

They believe the EPA is overstepping its bounds by publicly meeting to discuss private, contaminated wells. Instead, they believe the situation would be better served if the state took responsibility for the problem and worked with local governments to solve any problems.

"Our hope is that the governor will ask the state Department of Ecology to step in and partner with local authorities by providing the assistance they need," Honeyford said in a press release. "A response is warranted in this situation, but not from a federal agency based in Seattle."

Chandler added in the press release that he thought the federal government doesn't have jurisdiction over private, non-municipal wells.

"We don't need more regulations on businesses and agricultural properties," Chandler continued. "We need a groundwater management area to find a solution that works best for the affected residents."

A ground water management area is what Washington dairy farmers have been advocating for the past two years, according to a letter given to the EPA by the Washington State Dairy Federation.

The letter, given to the EPA by Washington State Dairy Federation Vice President Tony Veiga, said that the dairymen's response to both surface and groundwater concerns has been a massive effort by the farmers to develop manure management plans that protect water quality. The dairymen also welcome inspections of their dairies by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Washington State Department of Ecology and inspectors from the EPA.

"For two years we have said there is a problem," Gordon said. "Let's figure out how to fix it."

He said that by forming a ground water management area it would allow for better information to be dispersed and there would be a process to decide what to do with any information gathered.

For instance, Gordon said, there isn't enough information available right now.

He said one study showed some wells were contaminated. These could be older wells that are not cased, which would not offer any protection from surface water.

A solution to this might be a government fund where residents could get low-interest loans to help replace some of these wells or to drill wells that aren't in such a shallow aquifer.

"A ground water management area process can sort these types of things out," Gordon added.

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