News Feature | December 12, 2013

Nitrate Cleanup Has Become A 'Civil War'

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


An attempt to save the groundwater in Washington's Yakima Valley is getting contentious. 

Dairy farmers and environmentalists are at odds, and the debate has become "more like a civil war or a live fire exercise than consensus and cooperation," according to the Yakima Herald

The project is titled the Groundwater Management Area Advisory Committee (GWAC).  According to literature for the project, the aim is to “reduce nitrate concentrations in groundwater below state drinking water standards.” The state legislature has allocated $2.3 million to GWAC. 

The Daily Sun News reported that "issues of trust" have been a major impediment to progress.

Farmers are hesitant to provide data to researchers for fear of litigation, the Herald said. Local farmer Doug Simpson, for instance, is concerned his data will not stay secret. “I don’t want to lose my farm because I participated,” he said.

Farmers have been burned in the past for shelling out info. "Four dairies that volunteered for an EPA groundwater study just more than a year ago were later sued by the local environmental group CARE. While the law protects producers, there is still fear that in the event of a court case, the information farmers release through a study will result in more lawsuits," the report said. 

The GWAC effort began when "tests of wells in part of the Lower Valley showed that about 20 percent exceeded federal standards for nitrates," the Herald said. "Exposure to high levels of nitrates can have serious health consequences, especially for infants and pregnant women."

An EPA study found that dairy farms are "a likely source" of nitrates in residential drinking water wells in the valley. It was not possible for the study to determine whether septic systems are also contributing to the problem. 

The EPA negotiated a deal with four dairy farms to "provide an alternate source of drinking water for neighbors within one mile down gradient of the dairies whose wells have levels of nitrate above EPA’s drinking water standard of 10 parts per million," the EPA said.

But the latest cleanup efforts have been bogged down by disagreements.

"Despite a facilitator who works to keep the meetings moving and the debate productive, finding consensus is hard for the 22-person committee made up of representatives of federal, state and county agencies, farmers, environmentalists and community members," the Herald reported. 

 “If it was easy, it’d been done a long time ago,” Vern Redifer, Yakima County’s public service director, said in the report. 

Image credit: "20120717-OSEC-RBN-8489," © 2012 USDAgov, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

Want to publish your opinion?

Contact us to become part of our Editorial Community.