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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Dec. 9, 2023

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In Our View: State should make exception for local farm

The Columbian

An ongoing dispute between a local family farm and the state Department of Ecology calls for an exception to state water regulations. A reasonable compromise could — and should — result in a win-win situation for the farm, state officials and local residents.

As it stands now, the conflict between Bi-Zi Farms and the state serves nobody well. It would be nonsensical for regulators to press the issue to the point where the farm closes.

The 105-acre business, north of Northeast 119th Street, has been in the Zimmerman family since 1872 and sells a variety of produce directly to customers. In addition to being a local institution, it is an example of a family farm that has survived while residential and commercial development has engulfed the region.

The farm draws water for irrigation from a ground well, and co-owner Bill Zimmerman said he thought the well predated the 1917 Washington water code. State officials disagree, and the Department of Ecology’s Mugdha Flores said: “We are legally ordering Mr. Zimmerman to stop withdrawing more groundwater than what is allowed by the state water law. These are laws that most irrigators in the basin already follow.”

Officials are limiting Bi-Zi Farms to 5,000 gallons of water a day. Such directives have been issued in the past but, according to The Columbian, this is the first time the agency has said it will enforce the limit.

“We can no longer allow Mr. Zimmerman to illegally take water,” Flores said. “Continuing to give Mr. Zimmerman special treatment is unfair to irrigators who follow the law.”

The Zimmermans have filed an application for water rights, but say that might not be affordable. Ecology officials have suggested that Bi-Zi Farms purchase water from Clark Public Utilities, but the Zimmermans say that would cost more than $170,000 a year, which they cannot afford.

All of which leads to a seemingly intractable situation.

Ecology officials are correct to regulate water rights and water usage; representatives elected by voters have spent decades devising laws to ensure that Washington’s natural resources are used fairly and equitably. As the department’s website explains: “Waters of the state belong to the public and can’t be owned by any individual or group. Instead, a person or group may be granted a right to use a volume of water, for a defined purpose, in a specific place.”

Expanding those rights for Bi-Zi Farms seems reasonable. Developments in surrounding neighborhoods, which have replaced farms that once drew from wells, are connected to public water supplies; there is not a demonstrable shortage of water in the area.

Meanwhile, Bi-Zi Farms should bear some cost if the Department of Ecology belatedly enforces water regulations. As mentioned by state officials, allowing special treatment for one customer is unfair to other irrigators who follow the law. The Zimmermans could be required to make some payment, establish educational programs about water and farming or contribute to programs that support family farms.

The Zimmermans are advocating for legislative action to help protect small-farm operators, and such action is necessary. A vast majority of farms throughout the United States are owned and operated by families, but market forces gradually have made it more difficult for them to remain in business.

Bi-Zi Farms’ continued existence is in the public’s best interest. State officials should work to find a reasonable compromise to ensure that existence.

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