A historic Brush Prairie farm now faces fines if it withdraws water over a relatively small limit as issues regarding water rights have come to a head.
On Sept. 16, the Washington state Department of Ecology filed an official notice of enforcement to Bi-Zi Farms regarding its water use. For the remainder of the year and for next year, the farm can only use 5,000 gallons of water a day for commercial use.
That limit is significantly lower than what the farm historically has used. An estimation from DOE in 2021 was that the farm used more than 31 million gallons a year.
The issue for Bi-Zi Farms, which celebrated 150 years of operation last year, is it doesn’t have water rights. Bill Zimmerman, the current owner after several generations of family, said the farm initially applied for a permit for a well on its property in 2009, but a backlog at the department had the permit languish.
In 2021, the issue returned when Ecology began clearing the backlog. Since then until Sept. 16, the farm operated in a state of limbo where it was withdrawing more water than allowed but did not receive any penalties leveled against it.
Now, Bi-Zi Farms faces fines as high as $5,000 daily for using more water than the 5,000-gallon limit, an Ecology spokesperson said in an email. Violations could also lead to a cancellation of the farm’s current water rights application.
“We want to help Bi-Zi Farms find a legal water right that will provide the farm with a sustainable supply for the future, but we do not have the authority to create new water rights or to transfer water rights from other users without their consent,” Mugdha Flores, the Ecology spokesperson, wrote.
Zimmerman said the farm could buy enough water rights for the operation for up to $375,000. Worries over further stalling from Ecology, and the potential to have the rights controlled by the department through the nature of the right, make him leery to go through with it, however.
“You’re never assured that you’re really getting what you’re paying for or what you’re buying,” Zimmerman said.
He said receiving the notice was “halfway a surprise” as Zimmerman explained that the past two years have shown him how Ecology deals with the farm.
“Nothing really surprises me anymore with them,” Zimmerman said.
Flores said most farms in the state follow Ecology’s rules, so the issue with Bi-Zi Farms is uncommon.
“Enforcement is not our primary goal in these situations,” Flores wrote in an email. “We prefer to help water users achieve voluntary compliance with state law.”
The department is waiting on a report from a consultant that the farm has hired to test the aquifers the farm’s well draws from. Zimmerman said that study will be done this fall with a $33,000 price tag.
In the meantime, the farm has cut down on what produce it grows. The farm didn’t raise any corn or green beans this year and only grew a few pumpkins for a patch, with neighboring farmers contributing.
“We were trying to do the best we could to try and comply and still provide for customers and the community,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said the farm has received significant support from the community and even state representatives, though whether or not that translates into progress for the issue isn’t clear.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how supportive they are … the Department of Ecology has their own timeline,” Zimmerman said.