SUNNYSIDE — A proposal to clean up groundwater in the Lower Yakima Valley doesn’t appear to have universal support.
During a public hearing Tuesday night at the Sunnyside Community Center, only three people from a crowd of about 100 spoke — and none commented in favor of the Lower Valley Groundwater Management Program.
Among them was a member of the Yakima Valley Farm Bureau who criticized the plan on several points, saying it was biased and unfairly targeted the agriculture industry without any focus on rural domestic septic tanks as potential contamination sources.
He read through a laundry list of issues and compared the six-year work and study to a similar one done more quickly and with less controversy in neighboring Benton County.
Afterword, he directed questions to Farm Bureau President Frank Lyall, who said the agriculture industry fears the plan — which is largely voluntary — will lead to unfairly stern government regulations.
“I think what we’re afraid of is the county will accept that and leverage it for regulation of all agriculture,” he said. “Regulations tend to be a socioeconomic loser.”
The proposal would implement 64 recommendations, including continued groundwater and soil monitoring, promotion of reduction strategies for all potential nitrate sources, continuing education and public outreach.
More than six years ago, federal, state and county authorities teamed with dairy and other farmers, residents and environmental groups to formulate a plan to reduce nitrates in Lower Valley groundwater.
Together they formed the Groundwater Management Area — a swath of Lower Valley land spanning from below Union Gap to below Grandview along the east side of the Yakima River. Everything on the west side of the river is on the Yakama reservation and under Yakama Nation authority.
Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but concentrations can be increased by animal waste, other fertilizers and septic tanks. Nitrates can be harmful to pregnant woman and infants, according to the Center of Disease Control.
Composed of opposing sides, the group has struggled to achieve consensus on a cleanup plan. Farmers have voiced a desire for including rural septic tanks as potential contamination sources, while environmental groups have kept sharp focus on large animal farms such as dairies as potential leading sources of nitrates.
Attitudes didn’t appear much different Tuesday.
The other two people who commented challenged each other over the potential of contamination from a septic tank compared with that of a manure storage pond used by dairies.
Either way, all potential sources, whether it be septic tanks, dairies and irrigated crops, need to be taken into consideration, said Dan DeGroot, who represents the dairy industry and a resident committee for the group.
“I want to correct the problem, and if we don’t have the correct information, we’re never going to correct it,” he said after the meeting. “Accusing a single industry is not going to correct it.”
Lyall said most people in attendance from the ag industry submitted written comments instead of speaking.
Bowen said he had personally received a handful of written comments but didn’t know how many had reached his office.
“I’m disappointed there wasn’t more public testimony,” Bowen said. “We’ve still got two more weeks left for people to submit written comments.”