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Columbia Basin Water Source Issue Story Was All Wet

By reading staff writer Karen Dorn Steele’s June 25 article about the Environmental Protection Agency delaying its decision about designating 8.2 million acres of Eastern Washington a sole source aquifer, one gets the idea local politics are interfering with the agency’s effort to protect our groundwater.

As usual, Steele slants an article to imply that people supporting designation - the EPA and an environmental group from Moscow, Idaho - are the good guys, while those opposed are involved because of “trash politics.”

The article ignores very important points, such as:

1. The EPA’s position that Columbia Plateau aquifers act as a single source is contrary to past and current scientific understanding. For this reason, the EPA is unable to point, with conviction, to any academic study or non-government source for scientific support.

2. The state Department of Ecology has regulated the various aquifers in this area as separate and distinct for over 20 years and opposes the designation.

3.The article misleads by implying that drinking water for the area’s 300,000 or so people comes from single source. Multiple and distinct aquifers at different depths and located in different geologic layers provide water for a variety of uses, including drinking, across the Columbia Plateau.

4. Contrary to Steele’s opinion, scientists on the EPA’s handpicked peer review panel didn’t refute the EPA’s findings. The panel concluded the EPA’s support document “has several technical weaknesses and deficiencies” that stem largely from the agency’s “heavy reliance” on a single U.S. Geological Survey study. That study, in turn, was not designed to evaluate the sole source issue.

5. The panel also notes that other sources, not considered by the EPA, are more appropriate for sole source aquifer determination, and that “if this data were used they would likely lead to revised vertical boundaries for the proposed sole source aquifer.” In layman’s terms, this means that if the EPA conducts an objective review of the scientific information it would be forced to acknowledge the existence of multiple aquifers, thereby eliminating the agency’s argument for a single source designation.

6. The only proponents of the designation are the EPA and an obscure environmental groups. Opponents are numerous: the state departments of Health, Agriculture and Ecology; Grant, Adams, Lincoln and Franklin counties; the Farm Bureau Federation, National Farm Organization, Cattlemen’s Association, Soap Lake Chamber of Commerce, Whitman County Property Owner’s Association, Columbia Basin Environmental Council, Odessa Economic Development Council, Northwest Council of Governments, Big Bend DEC and many towns and cities. Sen. Slade Gorton, Reps. Doc Hastings, George Nethercutt and Helen Chenoweth also oppose sole source designation.

The panel members stated many times their scientific opinion that the area is served by an upper aquifer system (the Wanapum) and a lower aquifer system (the Grand Ronde).

As panel member and Washington State University Professor Wade Hathhorn wrote: “In short, I feel the proposed area for delineation is too immense and poorly defined (both physically and hydraulically), the persons and entitles to be affected are too great (most of which are opposed to the plan), and the need for federal designation is simply not apparent.”

EPA Administrator Chuck Clarke is right to hesitate on designating one-fifth of our state a single source aquifer, given the lack of scientific evidence and opposition from the local communities.

I am just disappointed that Steele did not provide her readers these legitimate, relevant points in this debate.


Editor’s note:The positions William Riley outlines here have been reported in previous editions of The Spokesman-Review.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = William Riley Special to Roundtable