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Feb. 7, 2023

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Dispute over water permit could spell the end for sixth-generation Bi-Zi Farms

Clark County farm has been owned by the Zimmerman family since 1872

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
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Bill Zimmerman, co-owner of Bi-Zi Farms, said he has been unable to attain water rights from the Washington State Department of Ecology and as a result may have to reduce or shut down his farming operation.
Bill Zimmerman, co-owner of Bi-Zi Farms, said he has been unable to attain water rights from the Washington State Department of Ecology and as a result may have to reduce or shut down his farming operation. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The co-owner of the beloved 105-acre, sixth-generation Bi-Zi Farms says he might have to close because of a water-rights dispute with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

“It’s a game-ender for the business,” Bill Zimmerman said Monday. “It’s a game-ender for the community.”

The Department of Ecology says the Glenwood-area farm doesn’t have a permit for its well, and it is requiring a study of the watershed before a permit can be issued. Zimmerman said he can’t do that. Another option is for Bi-Zi Farms to buy water from Clark Public Utilities, which Zimmerman said would crush the farm’s profitability.

The state says wells need permits, and owners need to follow procedure to get them.

“Water rights are protected so someone doesn’t come in and divert water,” said Jeff Zenk, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology’s Southwest Washington region. “It’s crucial for years like this when water is scarce.”

Bi-Zi Farms, pronounced “busy farms,” is at 9504 N.E. 119th St., northwest of Orchards, on land the Zimmerman family purchased in 1872. The farm, which grows and sells a wide variety of fruits and vegetables directly to consumers, has been using a ground well to irrigate its crops since about 1900. The well predates the 1917 Washington water code, the predecessor of the water-rights system, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, 67 — who owns the farm with his wife, Peggy, and their family — said he thought his father had applied for water rights for the land.

“My understanding was that he applied for water rights,” Zimmerman said. But around 2009, he discovered that the farm did not have the rights and he needed to apply, although the well had been used for decades.

He applied for the water rights, but Zimmerman said the application has been on hold at the Department of Ecology. Every year or so, he’d call and check on the status, and he said that the state told him that it was on its way to being processed. Zimmerman said it was his understanding that the permit would be approved.

The state’s response

But last November, Zimmerman received a letter stating that in order to grant the water rights to the property, the Department of Ecology would require Bi-Zi Farms to conduct a watershed study to determine the 49-foot well’s impact on the groundwater levels, which could affect fish and other wildlife.

“As a drilled well, it’s not terribly deep,” Zimmerman said.

Still, Zimmerman hired a consultant called Pacific Water Group, but the group said it would be virtually impossible to conduct a study, Zimmerman said.

He recalled the consultant saying that a study would involve tracing dyes and proving where the water comes from and where it goes.

“They said it’s almost impossible to do it,” Zimmerman said. “They did the best they could.”

Zenk said part of the water-rights approval process is a requirement that the landowners do testing to determine the impact of the well. “Based on feedback from the consultant retained by Zimmerman, it appears that he didn’t do the testing required,” Zenk said.

The Department of Ecology also gave Zimmerman an option to tap into the Clark Public Utilities’ water main, which runs along the road in front of the farm. Zimmerman estimated that his water bill would be $100,000 a year.

“There’s no way we make that much money in a year to afford to pay $100,000 a year to the PUD,” he said.

Clark Public Utilities spokesman Dameon Pesanti said that the staff hasn’t spoken with Zimmerman about connecting service, but they are willing to work with him and see if they can find a solution.

“Whenever we connect with businesses or agricultural customers who use large quantities of water, we collaborate to select a meter that’s the right size for them and find solutions to help them use their water as efficiently as possible,” Pesanti wrote in an email. “From the outset, we let our irrigators know our water is treated and tested to surpass drinking water standards, which is why we have a three-tiered rate system that encourages water conservation.”

Zimmerman is left facing tough choices, including cutting crop production.

The department’s letter also alleges that Bi-Zi Farms uses more than the allotted 5,000 gallons a day of well water without water rights, an amount that typically waters about half an acre a day, Zenk said.

Zimmerman is required to install a water meter to measure the water consumption, and he said he’s already contacted a plumber to have one installed. There’s been no penalty, fee or fine to Bi-Zi Farms. But Zimmerman sees trouble ahead.

“If we don’t have water to irrigate, the strawberry crop will be down by 50 percent. Raspberries and blackberries will be down 65 percent. Sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans would be nonexistent.”

It’s a frustrating situation for Zimmerman, who said many of the properties around Bi-Zi Farms hold water rights from the past, when they were farmed. But those properties have now been developed and no longer use well water.

On Saturday, Zimmerman posted a request on Facebook for his customers to convince lawmakers to issue the water rights to Bi-Zi Farms. The post drew a large response, including being shared about 2,400 times.

“The Department of Ecology doesn’t account for what the farm means to the community,” Zimmerman said.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Clark Public Utilities.