U.S. Water News Online
WEST RICHLAND, Wash. -- A 1977 law intended to discourage
proliferation of ``corporate'' farms is having an unintended effect
on owners of some small farms.
West Richland officials also contend the law is preventing them
from getting potential water needed for the city's growth.
At issue is how the state Department of Ecology interprets the
Family Farm Act of 1977, an initiative Washington voters approved to
protect small farms from being swallowed up by corporations.
Ecology spokeswoman Mary Getchell said the agency has little room
to maneuver under the law, which requires permits to be issued for
small farm irrigation.
The agency says the law opposes changes of farm water use to
anything other than a family farm. The law says the agency is
supposed to suspend water permits if it finds the water is being used
for ``land not in conformity with the definition of a family farm.''
What the law didn't account for was a day when a farmer's water is
worth more than his crops. The 1977 initiative forbids new
appropriations of public water for private farms over 2,000 acres.
``Many family farmers right now are looking for some kind of
alternatives,'' said Henry Johnson, Franklin County water conservancy
board chairman and a Pasco real estate salesman.
``Many of them are struggling to make ends meet with their current
cropping rotation and I think a lot of them are beginning to think
about how they can benefit from their assets in other ways, such as
water transfers,'' he said.
John B. Michel of Kennewick wants to keep his farm, but sell his
untapped groundwater rights to West Richland, which drilled a well
last year that didn't deliver as much water as officials hoped.
The city has agreed to purchase water rights from Michel. It seeks
about 3,100 gallons per minute -- enough for about 2,400 homes -- for
But to make the deal, the parties need to get Michel's water
rights changed from ``agricultural irrigation'' to ``municipal'' use.
Michel's request for a water transfer is before the Benton County
water conservancy board, which was expected to make a decision by the
end of the month.
Dennis Wright, West Richland's public works director, said the
city expects the Ecology Department to oppose the transfer.
Joel Merkel, a Seattle lawyer who represents West Richland, argues
the Ecology Department's stance is flawed. He says the Family Farm
Act was only intended to stop corporate farms from overtaking family
farms and is ``silent'' on other uses. Therefore, water transfers
from farms to towns shoul d be allowed, he said.
Charles Kilbury, a Pasco councilman and former state legislator,
said that discussions leading up to passage of the act never included
transfer of water to municipal water systems.
``There didn't seem to be any concern about water for cities,'' he
West Richland is prepared to appeal the Ecology Department's
expected denial to a state hearing board, Wright said.
The next step would be a lawsuit, unless the Legislature steps
forward to sort out the mess.
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