Washington orchard loses appeal over drought money

Zillah, Wash., farmer Dennis Jones speaks to a Washington legislative drought task force in Olympia in 2015. A hearings board in December 2017 denied his appeal of a decision by the state Department of Ecology to not defray the cost of an emergency well he and his brother drilled in 2015.

Washington orchardists Dennis and Will Jones have been denied again in their bid for $208,299 from the state Department of Ecology to defray the cost of drilling an emergency well during the 2015 drought.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that Ecology was within its rights to rebuff the request, even though the department reimbursed the brothers $268,890 for another well under the same drought-relief program.

The three-member board said Ecology had valid reasons for viewing the wells differently. One well was working by mid-October, while the other wasn’t operable until Oct. 29, the board noted in a ruling posted Thursday.

“While the applications were identical, the projects differed in their ability to benefit Jones Farms’ 2015 crops,” the board stated.

The case tested Ecology’s latitude in distributing $16 million appropriated by the Legislature for relief midway through one of the more severe droughts in state history. Ecology awarded about $7 million for 16 projects. The rest of the money would have been available if the drought had lasted into 2016.

The Joneses, who grow fruit on more than 250 acres near Zillah in Yakima County, argued that both emergency wells were vital to keep young trees alive through the winter and that both qualified for funding, not just one.

Dennis Jones said Thursday that he planned to meet with their attorney, Jamie Carmody, after the first of the year to discuss the ruling. Hearings board decisions can be appealed to Superior Court.

The hearings board rejected Ecology’s claim that it had complete freedom to use the money as it saw fit. The board, however, concluded that the department hadn’t been unreasonable in denying one of the Joneses’ applications.

“While there is certainly room for two opinions in this matter, the board cannot conclude based on the evidence presented that Ecology’s decision was made without due consideration or was unreasoned,” the board stated.

The Joneses received less than half their normal water supply from the Roza Irrigation District in 2015. They estimated they were facing $10 million in drought losses and invested about $1.1 million in the emergency wells.

To qualify the Joneses as a public entity and eligible for Ecology money, the Roza irrigation district approved forming two local improvement districts, one for each well.

The consensus of the Ecology staff initially was to deny funding for both wells, according to hearings board records. The agency eventually paid for half of the first well that went into use and issued a press release stating the well would irrigate trees in the fall and help protect roots from winter damage.

The Roza irrigation district supplies junior water-right holders over some 72,000 acres in the Yakima Valley. The district’s farmers suffered $75.38 million in drought losses in 2015, the Washington State Department of Agriculture estimated.

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