Reservation Residents have to Solve Water Contamination issues without Yakima County

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Ground Water News, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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Leslie Stump poses for a portrait with one of her dogs, Baalou, on her property in Toppenish, Wash. on Nov. 6, 2014. A nearby expanding dairy farm’s runoff is heading towards her property from all four sides. Stump is worried about the impact that the manure will have on her water supply. (Photo credit: Kaitlyn Bernauer/ Yakima Herald-Republic)

Article courtesy of Kate Prengaman | November 16, 2014 | Yakima Herald | Shared as educational material

To outsiders, Leslie Stump’s 40 acres of scruffy land in the alkali flats south of Toppenish might not look like much, but for her and her children — who catch frogs in the ditch and help her tend to the animals — it’s their own little piece of paradise.

Now, she’s afraid that’s changing. This summer, a nearby dairy owner bought the parcel next door and started building milking pens. He also spread load after load of manure, which attracted loads of flies, before planting a crop of corn, Stump said.

She started worrying about the effects that living next door to so much manure might have on her family and her well-water quality. Dairy manure, if not properly managed, can be a nuisance to neighbors and a source of nitrate and bacteria contamination to groundwater.

The owner of the Southside Dairy, Steve Bangs, did not return calls requesting comment.

“I know he’s got the right to do what he wants on his land. … It’s frustrating because nobody seems to be concerned,” Stump said.

Figuring out who to call with her questions has been challenging, thanks to the complex web of county, tribal and federal jurisdiction on the Yakama Nation Reservation. The property in question is what’s known as deeded land, owned by non-tribal members and taxed by the county, but within the reservation boundary.

Dairy manure management is an issue that Yakima County’s Groundwater Management Area, GWMA, is looking at as it seeks solutions to the Lower Valley’s groundwater pollution problem. But its jurisdiction stops at the reservation boundary.

That means that despite being a county taxpayer, Stump’s not eligible for the free well testing the county has periodically offered through the state-funded, $2.3 million GWMA process. Farmers and dairy owners nearby aren’t eligible to participate in the county’s studies that seek to identify what practices can lead to pollution risks and learn how to better manage the likely culprits — fertilizer and manure.

It’s the same aquifer and the same pollution concerns on both sides of the political boundary. But back in 2010, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Ecology and the Yakama Nation met to talk about how to address the problem, the tribe decided not to participate in the GWMA process, said Tom Eaton, director of the EPA’s Washington office.

“What we hammered out was a general agreement that the county would proceed with its GWMA and the tribe would proceed with a similar process designed to protect groundwater on the reservation,” Eaton said.

The EPA gave the Yakama Nation a $100,000 grant to start the process, Eaton said, but he said he hasn’t checked up recently on what the tribe is planning to do to protect its groundwater.

“One of the things we are going to do in the next couple months is have that meeting and find out how things are going on that side of the line,” Eaton said. “Our goal is to have groundwater protected across the aquifer.”

Sources with the Yakama Nation were only able to confirm that a groundwater protection plan is in development, but could not provide any details.

Eaton said the tribe was pretty much starting from scratch to develop a groundwater protection plan, so he expected to process to take some time. Neither Yakima County’s GWMA or the tribe have actually taken action to protect groundwater yet, he added.

But, unlike the GWMA process and its contentious public meetings, the Yakama Nation is developing its process behind closed doors, frustrating for Stump and other reservation residents looking for answers.

The Yakama Nation has a moratorium on new dairies and expansions on the reservation. Environmental activist Jan Whitefoot said that it needs to be enforced to stop the dairy expansion near Stump’s house. But, the resolution, approved in 2008 to block plans for 6,000 cow dairy outside Harrah, lacks an enforcement mechanism, such as zoning or a permit requirement.

The dairies and all other confined animal feeding operations on the reservation are regulated by the EPA, under the authority of the Clean Water Act. Off-reservation, the state Department of Agriculture regulates dairies and their manure management.

Any dairy that discharges — the technical term for letting potentially polluted water run off the property into nearby creeks — needs a permit and is subject to inspection, but most dairies on and off reservation don’t have runoff and thus don’t actually require such permits, said the EPA’s Steve Potokar.

That means most are only inspected if the EPA gets a complaint, Potokar said. Moreover, the EPA’s regulations only target pollution that gets into surface waters, he said, not into groundwater.

“The biggest impact people and tribes have to address this is on the local level. All we can tell (dairies) is that they can’t put waste into surface waters,” Potokar said.

Overall, nitrate pollution appears to be less of a problem on the reservation, according to well test results, Eaton said. There are also fewer dairies; only six on the reservation compared to 69 in Yakima County.

Although the entire Lower Valley shares an aquifer and pollution can move around the region, hydrogeologist Matt Bachmann said nitrate pollution is commonly found in shallow groundwater near sources.

“For nitrate, most of the contamination is shallow. It comes from the fields and hits the top of the water table,” Bachmann said. “The contaminate plume usually flows around the source; it’s not reaching from Sunnyside to Zillah or the reservation.”

But knowing nitrate pollution rarely travels very far doesn’t ease Stump’s concerns at all.

The water table is only a few feet below the surface, she said, and the dairy expansion property drains onto her land. Stump says she wants to fight the expansion, but she doesn’t know how.

“People are going to say I must be anti-farming, but I’m not; I grew up farming. I am just averse to a concentrated number of animals and pollution and the water draining onto my property,” Stump said.

She’d feel better, she said, with fewer cows on pasture next door or if she knew that someone was monitoring the manure and the water quality. But instead, she’s afraid her new neighbor is trying to push her to sell out and move away. An anonymous buyer offered to buy her land in the spring, right before the neighbors sold to Bangs, Stump said, but she declined.

“My feeling is that (with) … the smell and the manure, he’s trying to bully me out,” she said. “I can’t afford to live anywhere else, especially with this kind of freedom for myself and my kids.”

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