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Not smooth sailing for group charged with cleaning up water

Jean Mendoza, speaking at the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee meeting Thursday evening, argues that best management practices alone will not fix the nitrate problem and that the committee must consider more rules and regulations.

Jean Mendoza, speaking at the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee meeting Thursday evening, argues that best management practices alone will not fix the nitrate problem and that the committee must consider more rules and regulations. Photo by Laura Gjovaag.

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GRANGER – A disagreement over the ultimate impact the Groundwater Advisory Committee will have on the Lower Yakima Valley was not settled at last night’s meeting, but the issue has been raised and will be discussed in the committee’s workgroups.

The dispute arose over how best to achieve the goal of the committee, which is to reduce concentrations of nitrates in groundwater to below Washington State Department of Health drinking water standards.

So far the committee has been focused on determining how nitrates are getting into the soil and how to determine the effectiveness of different best management practices put into action on farms in the valley.

Jean Mendoza of Friends of Toppenish Creek argued that such best management practices are “so vague, non-specific and open to interpretation” that it is impossible to determine if they will have any benefits.

She suggested that reducing nitrate levels will require rules and regulations for farmers to follow, and alleged that many people in the committee are opposed to any regulations.

To support her allegation, she brought up a recent proposal put forward to ban manure spraying during burn bans in winter months and claimed dairy farmers had essentially shot down the proposal.

Mendoza said if dairy farmers resisted a proposal with such a small impact, they must be opposed to all regulations. She said the committee needs to focus on monitoring and enforcement rather than suggestions that farmers will voluntarily adopt.

“We should be asking ourselves, can this actually be monitored? Do we have a way of making sure this can be done?” she said.

She then said the area has too many cows for the land to sustain. She stated that dairy farms are the source of 58 percent of nitrate pollution and that the Lower Valley must find a balance between the number of cows and profitability of the industry.

Mendoza also said she is concerned that the committee has been meeting for a year and the work group on regulatory framework has yet to meet once.

After Mendoza’s comments, Steve George of the Yakima County Farm Bureau disputed her information. He said the manure spraying proposal was rejected by the Yakima Regional Clean Air Authority, not by dairy farmers.

He also said that he had never heard the 58 percent statistic before, noting that a major purpose of the committee is to actually determine the cause of the nitrate problem in order to formulate solutions. He cautioned the group against creating new rules before it has facts to back up the regulations.

Committee Chairman Rand Elliott - a Yakima County commissioner - also spoke, saying that regulation has always been a goal of the committee. He said the discussion of regulations should be part of the scope of the work groups for the moment, not the committee as a whole.

Tom Eaton of the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on Mendoza’s claim that dairies are responsible for 58 percent of nitrate pollution in groundwater. He said an initial estimate of nitrogen sources indicated that dairy farms had the potential to be about 60 percent of the source, but that number has not been confirmed.

A discussion then ensued about the committee’s regulatory framework work group, with the committee learning that the primary information the work group requires before its first meeting will be compiled by HDR Engineering, Inc. before the end of the month.

The decision was made to convene the work group before the next committee meeting. Mendoza will be a member of that group.

The work group will examine current law to look for gaps in enforcement or areas that need clarification before making recommendations on updates or new rules and regulations.

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