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Lack of trust stymies groundwater work

Photo by Laura Gjovaag.
Kirk Cook of the Washington Department of Agriculture explains that cooperation by farmers is necessary to develop data models that he says are needed to address nitrate concerns.

GRANGER – Issues of trust continue to arise as the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area Advisory Committee attempts to make forward progress.

The committee is charged with developing a plan to keep nitrates out of the drinking water of rural county residents.

The main issue is one of privacy. Dairy farmers and producers sitting on the committee refuse to commit to providing data unless the county can promise that the farmers will not be sued as a result of their participation in groundwater studies.

“I want to know if I have a problem on my farm,” Doug Simpson, a producer, said at last night’s committee meeting in Granger. “I don’t think I do, but I want to know. But I also don’t want to lose my farm because I participated.”

Four dairies that volunteered for an EPA groundwater study just more than a year ago were later sued by the local environmental group CARE. While the law protects producers, there is still fear that in the event of a court case, the information farmers release through a study will result in more lawsuits.

“We’ve seen what happened in the past to those who volunteered,” said Jason Sheehan of the Yakima Dairy Federation. “There’s only a handful of people around this table who have skin in the game. You might lose your jobs, we could lose everything.”

Kirk Cook of the Washington Department of Agriculture presented a set of potential data models that would give the committee a better understanding of how nitrates move through soil. However, all the models require participation and cooperation by landowners.

“Lack of cooperation will skew the data set,” said Cook. “This will be a challenge regardless of what model is picked. We need a data set large enough to make the model useful.”

Sheehan questioned the need for modeling, suggesting that action was more important.

“I can model all day about planting corn,” he said. “If I don’t get the seed in the ground it will never grow.”

He suggested that what the committee needs to do is move forward on best practices, not create data models.

Dr. Troy Peters of WSU’s irrigated agriculture research and extension center agreed, suggesting the group skip the models.

“The model will only tell us how long it takes for nitrates to go away,” he said. “It won’t reduce them.”

Helen Reddout of CARE argued that the models would give the public a better idea of how long it will take for groundwater to be restored.

“Even if we put diapers on the cows and shipped all the manure to South America, we still have to deal with the nitrates now and the decades of pollution in the ground,” she said.

Tom Eaton of the EPA also said the model would be useful.

“We’re not going to reduce one pound of nitrates through modeling, but it may tell us where the problem is coming from and how to solve it in the future,” he said.

Jim Trull of the Sunnyside-Roza Joint Board of Control asked if the modeling would lead to better management practices in the future.

Matt Bachmann of the U.S. Geological Survey said that the modeling will be done eventually, one way or another, and it is probably best for the committee to make it part of their work so it can be directed by the people involved instead of imposed from the outside.

He asked the producers what would convince them to take part in the study.

“It would have to be a hell of a sales pitch,” said Sheehan. He said at minimum he’d want the lawyer at the Sunnyside-Roza Joint Board of Control to review the agreement, and then his own lawyer.

Another producer said that no farmer would agree as long as the possibility exists of the information being disclosed in the event of a lawsuit.

Vern Redifer, Yakima County public services director, argued that the law protects the producers already, but agreed to work with Trull on finding a way to protect producers.

Bachmann said solving the issue of privacy is crucial.

“This must be solved,” he said. “Or this committee cannot go on.”

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