Brush Prairie farm in jeopardy over water rights


A historic Brush Prairie farm may have to cease its current state of operations if penalties from the Washington State Department of Ecology come to fruition. 

In an Aug. 7 post, Bi-Zi Farms announced they are in a dispute with the Department of Ecology regarding a well, which is likely a century old.

According to Bill Zimmerman, sixth-generation head of the farm, the well was dug early in the 20th century before 1920. It was initially used for domestic and livestock water before it was diversified for irrigation given the volume it produced.

The family applied for a water rights permit in 2009, but a backlog in requests led the permit to languish in bureaucracy.

Ecology spokesperson Jeff Zenk said there was “quite a backlog” in permitting, leading to the department sending out a letter asking if applicants were still interested in pursuing the water rights in November. Bi-Zi Farms interpreted the letter as a denial of the initial permit, though the farm successfully attained a temporary one for well testing, Zenk said.

Although the farm had been operating since the 1870s, more recent laws required a different level of compliance. Zimmerman said the family understood that his father had applied for water rights for the well, but in actuality, the family received a certificate noting the well’s existence, the younger Zimmerman said. Though he couldn’t put an  exact date to it, he said that recognition was made sometime in the 1970s.

The reason for seeking an outright permit was because the well in question was sealed and enhanced in the 1990s.

Zimmerman said when the farm applied for the water rights, ecology allowed them to operate without formal approval, likely given the backlog. That was under the domestic cap of 5,000 gallons a day, however, which Zimmerman said was never stated explicitly during that time.

According to Ecology, the farm used about  39,102,120 gallons of water per year.

“All of a sudden, from out of the blue someplace, they pull out this rule, and we go ‘hold it, you never talked to us about this rule, where did this come from,’” Zimmerman said. “I’m very frustrated.”

Despite messaging from the farm stating it had been formally denied, Zenk said the Bi-Zi Farms case is still active. He said in order to fulfill the permit requirements, the farm must undergo well testing based on instream flow regulations to see if it can handle the proposed use.

Zenk noted the farm could hook up to Clark Public Utilities through a connection located by the farm, though Zimmerman said that would cost about $100,000, compared to the roughly $5,000 it spends running its well. The farm could also purchase an existing water right from a nearby entity.

“We have been trying to work with (ecology) and we’ve been getting absolutely nowhere,” Zimmerman said.

The department’s response alleged the farm is not working enough with them to find a resolution.

Though Zimmerman said he has received notices from ecology of his illegal use of water, both he and the department said he has yet to receive any penalties regarding the matter.

Should the farm lose its ability to draw from the well at the rate it needs, Zimmerman said the effect would be felt over the years. While corn, tomatoes and cucumbers wouldn’t grow at all, raspberry, blackberry and blueberry yields would be down about 65 percent, he said, and the yield of strawberries would drop 35 percent.

That was just in the first year, Zimmerman said.

“We have not fined Mr. Zimmerman. We have not taken any kind of enforcement action,” Zenk said. “We stand ready to work with Mr. Zimmerman to get his water right or find a solution where he can mitigate.”

Zenk added that about 70 percent of water rights applications are approved for agricultural purposes.

“Ecology has no interest in seeing Bi-Zi Farms close,” Zenk said.


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