A Grant County, Wash., farmer and the landowners he leased fields from have been fined a total of $618,000 by the state Department of Ecology for illegally drawing from the shrinking Odessa aquifer to irrigate 530 acres this year.
Ecology alleges that Ron Fode continued to irrigate after he and the landowners were told more than once last spring to stop.
“This isn’t fair to other irrigators who follow the law or to local communities and rural landowners who depend on this groundwater for their drinking water,” Ecology water resources manager Mary Verner said in a written statement.
Ecology said it formally ordered Fode and the landowners to stop irrigating three fields on June 26. The irrigation continued until Oct. 10, according to Ecology.
Ecology issued three separate fines: $103,000 for irrigating 65 acres of alfalfa owned by the estate of Michael Schmidt, $206,000 for irrigating 130 acres of Timothy hay owned by Fode and $309,000 for irrigating 335 acres of alfalfa and potatoes owned by Michele and Randy Kiesz, Ritzville farmers.
Michele Kiesz said Tuesday that Fode rented the land for $100 an acre. The well on the property is dry, she said.
“Whatever water was being applied to my rented land, I was not knowledgeable about,” she said.
She said that she and her husband will appeal the fine to the Pollution Control Hearings Board. “It’s not a fun situation, and we’re trying to rectify it,” she said.
The Kieszes were part of a recent Washington state delegation to the White House. The delegation talked to the Trump administration about funding projects to replace water from the Odessa aquifer with water from the Columbia River.
The aquifer has dropped more than 200 feet since 1980, forcing wells to be drilled deeper, according to Ecology.
“I recognize Ecology is trying to safeguard the aquifer, and I’m trying to do that, too,” she said.
Efforts to reach Fode on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Fode tried to challenge Ecology’s June order to stop irrigating, but his appeal to the hearings board missed a filing deadline by a few days. The board dismissed the appeal without considering the 61 pages of documents Fode submitted.
Fode told the Capital Press in September that he had continued to irrigate because he was confident in his case and that he had a large investment in the crops.
Fode applied in January to transfer groundwater rights to the 130 acres he owns. Ecology denied the transfer on the grounds the land could be irrigated by surface water, rather than the dwindling aquifer.
An Ecology press release alleged Fode had pumped more than 500 million gallons from the aquifer. The accusation was based on standard irrigation practices in the area, not an actual measurement of water, an Ecology spokeswoman said.
The fines were not based on the amount of water used. Ecology calculated that fields were illegally irrigated for 103 days. The fines were largely based on the size of the fields and potential for economic gain, the spokeswoman said.
Fode can appeal the fines to the Pollution Control Hearings Board.