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.

Disagreement over a plan to clean up Lower Valley drinking water continues between a local environmental group and the state Department of Ecology.

High nitrates in Lower Valley groundwater long has been a problem, and a plan was devised to correct it.

Ecology supports the plan and certified it last year. But the environmental group — Friends of Toppenish Creek — says the plan lacks the regulatory teeth needed to improve water quality.

The group appealed Ecology’s certification to the state Pollution Hearings Board, which heard oral arguments in a two-day hearing this week.

Both parties are expected to submit closing briefs by Sept. 25. It’s not clear when a decision will be rendered.

The plan was devised by the Groundwater Management Area Committee, a consortium of federal, state, county and tribal officials, farmers, dairy operators, residents and local environmental groups, including Friends of Toppenish Creek.

The committee was formed in 2012, along with the Ground Water Management Area — a swath of land on the east side of the Yakima River running from below Union Gap to south of Mabton and Grandview.

In many parts of the management area, groundwater nitrates are above levels considered safe to drink. High nitrates are harmful to infants, pregnant women and elderly people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The plan, largely voluntary, includes 64 recommendations. Among them:

  • Routine groundwater and soil monitoring.
  • The promotion of reduction strategies for potential nitrate sources.
  • The installation of protective liners in animal manure storage lagoons.
  • The implementation of plans to prevent overwatering when irrigating.
  • And the exploration of extending city water and sewer services to nearby rural areas.

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

Ecology believes in the plan and points out that some of it is already being implemented.

“It will help improve water quality if its fully implemented,” said David Bowen, Ecology section manager.

But Jean Mendoza with Friends of Toppenish Creek disagrees. She says the plan only recommends changes without implementing stringent rules.

Her group long has pointed at dairies as the largest contributors to the problem, saying their manure storage lagoons leak and they overapply manure as fertilizer.

Her group has been party to recent lawsuits against several Lower Valley dairies, of which one recently entered a settlement agreement calling for groundwater monitoring, synthetic lagoon liners and a decrease in manure applications.

“What we asked from the outset is to stop the leaks and stop the dumping,” she said of the plan.

Mendoza said nothing will change without mandatory regulations. She accuses Ecology of being more focused on keeping the peace between disputing groups than solving the problem.

“Ecology tries to be all-encompassing and make everyone happy and that prevents them for really enforcing anything,” she said.

Bowen doesn’t agree. He said the plan needed buy-in from the entire committee, and that Ecology isn’t the lead agency, but merely providing support and guidance.

Thirty-one monitoring wells have been installed and the plan was recently awarded a $358,000 state grant to cover the cost of quarterly sampling of those wells in addition to another 120 domestic wells for two years. After that, sampling will be conducted annually, he said.

Bowen said he understands Mendoza’s concerns.

The plan can be amended if warranted, he said, but Mendoza’s concerns should not prevent it from moving forward.

“We’ve got momentum and I’d really like to keep it moving forward,” he said. “Let’s implement what the community-based group has put together.”

Mendoza said she isn’t confident her group will win the appeal, but it’s important to create awareness about drinking water safety in the Lower Valley.

“One of our goals is to put more pressure on Ecology so they do a better job,” she said.

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