Hidden Wells, Dirty Water
by Leah Beth Ward
A rare cooperative effort resulted in a Groundwater Management Area
for Grant, Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties -- and programs to reduce nitrate leaching
OTHELLO -- It took dairyman Dwain Forester a year before deciding to join an unusual cooperative effort to combat nitrate contamination across the Mid-Columbia Basin.
"I did not follow easily," said Forester, a plain-spoken bear of a man who runs a medium-sized dairy of 500 cows and grows corn on the low hills near Royal City.
But Forester, who sits on the Washington State Dairy Federation board, was worried by what he saw in the Lower Yakima Valley in the mid-1990s.
Environmentalists were suing dairy after dairy for violating clean-water laws -- winning judgments and settlements -- while state and federal regulators were cracking down on illegal dumping of manure into waterways.
"We watched what was going on in Sunnyside and everybody was paranoid of a lawsuit," Forester said. "We had to act."
There was good reason to worry. Nitrates were found above federal limits in 20 percent of private wells in Grant, Franklin and Adams counties. Another 37 percent showed elevated levels, indicating they were approaching the federal limit of 10 milligrams per liter. The contamination was showing up in both shallow and deep wells.
More than 90 percent of the area's population of about 177,800 relies on groundwater for drinking water.
Because of the contamination, federal officials threatened to declare the area a "sole source aquifer," a rarely used designation to protect drinking water supplies.
No one liked the idea, which would have given the government broad powers over the basin. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would be able to review all federally funded projects and block agricultural loans that could result in increased groundwater pollution.
Farmers also worried the state would step in and limit the use of nitrogen-rich commercial fertilizer, which is critical to the region's 300 different crops.
Fears about government intrusion into the basin's farm-based economy prompted potato farmers, hay growers, feedlot operators, dairies, ordinary residents, small-town officials, county commissioners and state legislators to look for an alternative.
"You had these very emotional meetings that drew crowds of people who were very scared that Uncle Sam would be taking over their water," recalled Paul Stoker, 59, of Othello, a former sugar beet farmer.
A lot was at stake. The basin's potatoes supply half the nation's french fries -- a cash value of about $630 million. Apples, wheat and corn are large-volume crops. There are large herds of dairy cows and beef cattle.
After four years of meetings by volunteer citizen groups, support grew for the idea of a Groundwater Management Area, which by law requires local management. Local lawmakers also backed the effort in the state Legislature, which agreed to help finance the plan.
Certified by the state in 2001, the groundwater management area now includes Grant, Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties -- about 8,000 square miles of the Columbia Basin -- and operates on a budget of about $2.5 million in local, state and federal funds. Local businesses and farms don't pay into the groundwater management area.
Like the Lower Yakima Valley, poverty is higher in the four-county area than the rest of the state and a significant portion of the population, 47 percent, is Latino.
The area has come to be known by the phonetic pronunciation of its acronym, "gwama." The plan is based on recognition that the primary source of the groundwater problem is the application of fertilizer on irrigated lands, called nitrogen loading.
Ecology and state health officials, including then-state health officer Dr. Mimi Fields, praised the move.
"Nitrate contamination is often an indication that the water supply is vulnerable to contamination from other sources," Fields said in a statement at the time.
Programs to reduce nitrate leaching included using less irrigation water and planting crops with deeper roots, such as alfalfa, which can use nitrates that would otherwise enter the groundwater.
A review of samples taken by the groundwater management area over three successive years has shown a leveling off of nitrate concentrations for the first time in 40 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
But nitrates are stubborn. Concentrations still exceed the federal drinking water standards in more than 20 percent of local wells and 35 percent of shallow wells.
The Columbia Basin groundwater management area is struggling to find the funding to continue its mission.
At a recent meeting, the groundwater management area's board updated an ambitious plan to map the layers of basalt in the basin. They want to know where the water is coming from and how old it is. So far they've mapped about 25 different layers that could hold water.
Stoker framed the question this way: "Where's the water coming from, or is it coming from anywhere at this point?"
If the aquifer is recharging from Lake Roosevelt, that's good news because it means the groundwater being pumped up for irrigation and drinking is new and free of nitrates.
"But if the water is a million years old, that's bad," said Stoker. "That says the aquifer is not recharging, or that we're just recharging from what we put back and that we may be running out of water."
Stoker owes the Legislature -- which funded the $2 million project -- the answers in January. But he said the work won't be done by then.
While they will have a model of the geology of the four-county area, they need a map of how the water flows. The information would be used for water management and regulation -- essentially to make prudent decisions about water use and the economic future of the basin.
Stoker, on behalf of the board, will request an additional $2.5 million from the 2009 Legislature for the hydrogeologic model. Given the forecast budget deficit, he said he knows it will be a tough sell.
A successful groundwater management area becomes part of the local government planning process, said Derek Sandison, who was a consultant to several GWMAs after they were authorized by the state in the mid-1980s.
Of 15 such areas formed in the last 10 years, only the Columbia Basin is still active as a stand-alone entity. County governments have absorbed many of the principles of groundwater management into their land-use and planning departments, according to Sandison.
Sandison, 55, has been director of Ecology's central regional office in Yakima since 2003 but was recently named the head of the department's new Office of Columbia River to be headquartered in Wenatchee.
Sandison said a GWMA could help tackle the Lower Yakima Valley's groundwater problem if all the parties that the law requires to be involved agree to participate.
"You wouldn't want to drag people kicking and screaming," he said.
The idea hasn't caught on in Yakima, but the Washington State Dairy Federation is willing to participate in a groundwater management plan if other parties join. Jay Gordon, executive director of the federation, said representatives of all possible sources of contamination, including golf courses that apply fertilizer, would have to be at the table.
"I have said we are ready to have that discussion as long as we invite the entire village," Gordon said.
Although it's managed to survive independently this long, the Columbia Basin area has had to cut some of its more popular programs, including free nitrate testing for local well owners and community education about the health effects of nitrates.
The Grant County Health District still provides sampling bottles and instructions for well owners on how to collect water for testing. Residents can drop the bottles back at the district, where they are picked up twice a week by area laboratories that do the testing for about $42.
Despite the cutbacks, the nine county commissioners are still behind the groundwater management area, according to LeRoy Allison, a Grant County commissioner and longtime board member. The counties provided $40,000 this year to the budget.
"It took a big broad effort," Allison said. "But the fact that we've developed information for local decision-making, as opposed to what the federal government wants to tell us, has been the biggest benefit."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs