Group plans changes to groundwater nitrates plan

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YAKIMA HERALD – PHIL FEROLITO – YAKIMA, Wash. — A group working on a plan to reduce the amount of nitrates in groundwater in the Lower Valley will spend more time making changes to the document.

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

Nitrates pose health risks to the elderly and pregnant woman and can be fatal to infants. Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but heavy use of fertilizers, including animal manure, can lead to groundwater contamination.

On Thursday evening, the work group that assembled many of the plan’s guidelines met to vote on whether it should move forward. But the group was reluctant to approve it, requesting language changes that include moving information out of the executive summary and removing subjective comments about septic tanks versus manure storage ponds as possible nitrogen sources.

The work group includes farmers, dairy operators, environmental groups, residents and federal, state and county officials.

Commissioner Rand Elliott, who headed the meeting, said he’s confident in the plan, and expects revisions to be complete in about three weeks. He said the requested changes largely amount to editing work.

“I think we’ll get it there,” he said. “I was disappointed we didn’t take action (Thursday) night, but I understand there are some updates people were concerned about.”

At least one group member, Jean Mendoza, requested the plan include data from a study that found a cluster of Lower Valley dairies responsible for nitrate contamination in nearby rural domestic wells. Those dairies were ordered by a federal judge to install protective liners in their manure ponds to prevent nitrates from leaching into the groundwater.

That lawsuit is what led to the formation of the groundwater management area (GWMA) in the Lower Valley, the work group and efforts to reduce nitrates in the groundwater.

“In my opinion, dairies are the leading cause of nitrates in the groundwater and that should be in there,” she told the rest of the group.

But a majority of the work group previously agreed to leave that area out of the GWMA because it has a higher concentration of dairies than any other area and is being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mendoza also is a member of the local conservation group The Friends of Toppenish Creek, a group that has filed a minority report, saying the plan doesn’t include much data from studies about how nitrates are making it into the groundwater nor has the group conducted a health assessment on area residents.

A consultant hired to compile the group’s work into a report couldn’t say how long it would take to make the changes to the two-part, 383-page plan.

Once the group approves the plan, it will undergo a state Environmental Policy Act review and be reviewed by the state Department of Ecology. There will be public hearings and public comment during those processes.

Elliott hopes the plan will be approved before his term as commissioner ends in December.

“It’s been six long years, and I’d sure like to see it in place before I go,” he said.

Posted by: Phil Ferolito, YAKIMA HERALD, August 11, 2018

Picture: (SHAWN GUST/Yakima Herald-Republic) Aerial images of agricultural land near Parker, Wash., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. The Yakima County Groundwater Management Area extends from Parker south to include areas around Grandview and Mabton.