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GUEST COLUMN

Forging partnerships to protect natural resources worth investment

The Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) was activated in November 2011 to tackle the thorny issue of groundwater contamination by nitrates. It has long been known that levels are too high in much of the aquifer that underlies the Lower Valley.

Many residents depend on this aquifer for their domestic water source. Too much nitrate is not good for people, especially infants, pregnant women and small children.

In a desire to craft local solutions, involving local stakeholders, Yakima County government stepped forward as the GWMA lead agency. A Groundwater Advisory Committee appointed by the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) convened its first meeting on July 12 last year. The advisory committee is the GWMA's core; it decides how the GWMA will operate, what it will do and how it will do it.

The committee represents a broad spectrum of citizens and interests; government agencies at several levels, agricultural organizations, environmental groups, health, conservation, irrigation and port districts, the Yakama Nation and more. It is based on the principle that in a democratic process anyone who has a stake in a problem has a place at the table when solutions are being sought.

When I hear or read some of the criticism of the GWMA Advisory Committee, that its process is too messy, its work too contentious and slow, I am reminded of the saying, "Laws are like sausages; it's better not to see them being made." I would say that the work of the local GWMA advisory group, trying to solve highly contentious issues, is right in there with making laws and sausages.

The chapter of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) on establishing Groundwater Management areas (GWMAs) as a tool includes in their purpose, "to forge a partnership between a diversity of local, state, tribal and federal interests in cooperatively protecting the state's groundwater resources."

Anyone who's been in this basin long, in the West for that matter, knows that 'forging partnerships to protect natural resources' is much easier said than done. In the Lower Valley, the conflicts go well beyond nitrate contamination. They heighten the potential for disagreement, but are not meant to be solved by the GWMA process, nor should they.

Despite all this, the GWMA Advisory Committee is on track and is moving forward. A work plan has been developed that lays out a program to achieve groundwater protection. Specialized work groups are identifying the scientific studies needed to approach the problem objectively, and producing products for its public education and outreach mission. The County and its staff are moving the work forward as a lead agency should. Its ultimate recommendations will provide the County a path forward through proposed ordinances, best management practices and agreed-upon strategies to protect human health and the environment.

Do committee meetings sometimes resemble sausage making? Most likely, especially to some onlookers and the press - who are welcome at every meeting and can observe every turn of the grinder handle. Limiting the diversity of the advisory committee might have made the process easier, but would have hurt the quality and durability of the solutions in the long run.

Look at the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement process: if the folks at the table hadn't kept slogging through contentious negotiations, we wouldn't have the widely praised Yakima Integrated Plan; the first real opportunity for solving many of our water and fish problems in many years.

Recent questions raised regarding cost to the taxpayer related to the GWMA process are legitimate. The GWMA is currently operating on $300,000 in start-up funds provided through a contract between Yakima County and the Department of Ecology. The County has until June 30 to put all of those funds into play.

With Sen. Jim Honeyford's leadership, the Legislature last year provided $450,000 for the next biennium. None of those funds has been spent yet. Under that contract with Ecology, the County, working with the advisory committee, must regularly meet a set of deliverables in order to be paid. It's also worth noting that of the $100,000 provided by the Legislature in 2010 to help the County prepare its original request to establish the GWMA, only $67,000 was used. The rest was returned.

The Department of Ecology and its Water Quality Program support the efforts of the Lower Yakima Valley GWMA. The community members serving on the advisory committee deserve our thanks for their many hours and hard work. We believe they will be successful. The final results are what count.

If groundwater contamination can be greatly reduced and drinking water sources protected, the valley and its citizens and businesses will only benefit.

- Charlie McKinney is the water quality manager for the Department of Ecology's Central Regional office in Yakima. He supervises water quality specialists serving seven Central Washington counties.

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