Groundwater management area

FILE — An aerial image shows agricultural land near Parker. The Yakima County Groundwater Management Area extends from Parker south to include areas around Grandview and Mabton.

SUNNYSIDE — After seven years of work, a plan to clean up Lower Valley groundwater is headed to the state Department of Ecology’s director for final approval.

The plan is in response to nitrate contamination in rural domestic wells in the Lower Yakima Valley.

High levels of nitrates pose health risks to infants, pregnant women and the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The group that for years labored over the issue — the Groundwater Management Area Committee — approved final edits to the plan Thursday night in Sunnyside.

The group is composed of dairy operators, farmers, residents and environmental groups as well as county, state and federal officials.

“This is a moment of success — congratulations,” Yakima County Public Services Director Lisa Freund told the group. “This is a major accomplishment. There are counties that have attempted this but have not succeeded.”

The next step will be to fund the implementation of the project, which would involve ongoing water sampling from 31 monitoring wells recently drilled and possibly another 120 rural domestic wells.

Freund encouraged the group to seek grants and any other available funding sources. A lack of funds could prevent the plans implementation.

“That could happen,” she said.

The plan, largely voluntary, implements 64 recommendations that include groundwater and soil monitoring, promoting reduction strategies for all potential nitrate sources, continued education and public outreach.

The plan also recommends that dairies use protective liners in manure storage ponds, that farmers follow a plan to prevent over-watering when irrigating, and that cities explore extending municipal water and sewer services to adjacent rural areas.

Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but heavy use of fertilizers, including animal manure, and leaky septic tanks drastically increase nitrate concentrations.

The group formed after a cluster of Lower Valley dairies near Granger and Sunnyside were sued for contaminating groundwater. A federal study had linked the practices of those dairies to unhealthy nitrate levels in nearby groundwater.

The group formed the Groundwater Management Area, a swath of land on the east side of the Yakima River spanning from below Union Gap to south of Mabton and Grandview.

Not everyone in the work group is happy with the plan.

Jean Mendoza, with environmental group Friends of Toppenish Creek, revisited several concerns her group has with the plan during Thursday’s meeting.

She wants the cluster of dairies that were forced to change their practices after being sued over groundwater contamination to be included in the plan.

Early on, a majority of the group agreed to leave the dairy cluster out of the plan, saying that it was already being monitored by the EPA and under stringent regulations.

Mendoza also insists benchmarks and timelines be established to assure cleanup happens, that a health assessment of those living in affected areas be conducted and that results be made available to the public.

She worries nothing will change because the plan is only voluntary.

A minority report Mendoza’s environmental group prepared will be included in the plan.

Ecology section manager David Bowen said the 31 monitoring wells that have been installed will provide useful information on present nitrate levels and establish a baseline.

“That gives us a benchmark, where we’re at at this point in time,” he said.

Cleanup won’t happen overnight, he said.

“Everything I’ve read said it could be 10 years, it could be 20 years,” he said.

Now that the plan is headed for final approval, funds will need to be raised to implement it, he said.

Well monitoring and sampling alone is estimated to cost about $70,000 a year, he said.

A deeper analysis of the data from the samplings showing trends could easily double that amount, he said.

A team of officials from area irrigation districts, Yakima County, Ecology, the Yakima Health District and the state Department of Health will determine how the plan will be implemented, Bowen said.

The team will decide how often monitoring wells will be sampled. Ideally, samples would be taken three to four time a year for the first two years, he said

Team officials also will decide if another 120 private wells will be included in regular monitoring.

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