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Agriculture advocate displeased with make-up of committee charged with cleaning up groundwater

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Don Young

Since the inception of the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area Advisory Committee, Don Young says he's had his reservations.

Nearly a year ago the Washington Department of Ecology authorized Yakima County to develop a groundwater management program to tackle elevated nitrates in groundwater and drinking water in the Lower Yakima Valley. In addition, the Department of Ecology pledged nearly $300,000 in start-up funds for the committee. That's after the EPA found that 21 percent of 337 wells in the Lower Valley sampled for nitrates were at levels greater than federal drinking water standards.

The group began its first meetings back in June of this year by voicing their individual expectations of the group. Expectations ran the gamut and included various ideas to identify water pollutants and establish the cause of the problems.

But with some members' comments, Young said he felt there was a conflict of interest among committee members.

A long-time advocate for agriculture and a Grandview/Sunnyside area rancher, Young decided to resign from the group after last month's meeting when the group's discussion of solutions to the nitrate issues turned into a heated debate.

The debate centered on the suggestion that one member of the group, Helen Reddout, a spokesman for the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE), should resign from the committee due to a perceived conflict of interest.

Sunnyside area dairyman Jason Sheehan, one of the committee members, called for the resignation of Reddout, because the CARE group is intent on suing local dairies. She refused.

That was the last straw for Young, who represented the Yakima County Farm Bureau as an alternate committee member. Young says his initial thought was that the group was supposed to be assembled to come up with ideas to solve the nitrate-tainted groundwater issue in the Lower Valley, not to target certain industries and businesses.

Young also isn't pleased that several members of the committee represent the agencies that set the polices and enforce those regulations that relate to agricultural producers.

Yakima County Commissioner and committee chairman Rand Elliot says everyone who holds a seat on the groundwater committee "...admits there are more nitrates in the ground than there should be.

"But there are a few people on the committee who have a very strong opinion of why that is, and seem to be focused on the potential source," he said.

Quite naturally, Elliot says, the targeted industry (dairy) has become defensive.

Even with Young's resignation, Elliot says he hopes the committee can continue on the path it was originally intended to follow.

"(The committee) is establishing sub-groups to look at livestock operations, irrigated farmland and others," he added.

Elliot says the sub-committees are tasked with working on finding out what the potential sources of nitrates are and how they are infiltrating the groundwater. Then the committee is to identify possible solutions to the issues.

"It's a lengthy process," he said.

Elliot says he recognizes the sensitive nature of the debates, too.

"This is a very emotional issue, there are people in groups, as I say, that have become focused on a particular issue, and are not giving much attention to the other elements of the issue," he added.

"I'm sorry to see Don (Young) resign, I've dealt with him on other issues over the years and have a great deal of respect for him," Elliot said. "I'd like to see him stay on the committee, but I recognize his privilege of withdrawing from the committee for his own reasons."

Young said, "The dairy industry is the Boeing of this valley, and should be a priority for ecology, Department of Health, soil conservation and everyone to work as the (committee) was intended."

"I hope that happens," he added.

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