The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Ken Graham
The Times 

Whose Water is It?

Ken Graham: From the Publisher


"It's the most contentious issue we've faced since I've been a commissioner, by far."

That was Walla Walla County Commissioner Todd Kimball, talking about a proposed zoning change to allow water bottling facilities in agricultural-zoned land in the county.

Commissioner Kimball and I met at The Times' office in Waitsburg last week to discuss that contentious issue, and why he and fellow commissioners Jim Johnson and Jim Duncan voted unanimously to allow the Walla Walla Planning Commission to keep that proposal on their list of potential zoning changes for later this year.

Kimball says he talks daily with people who have strong opinions about the proposed zoning change, and a clear majority are opposed.

The revision was proposed by Waitsburg-area farmers Perry and Darlene Dozier. It asks that water bottling facilities be added as an allowed use throughout agricultural zones in Walla Walla County.

Once the planning commission makes its final zoning change recommendations, which will likely occur in the fall, Kimball and his fellow commissioners will have the final say on which are implemented.

If the change is approved, the Doziers plan to pump water from a deep well on their property – for which they own water rights – for their bottling operation. In order to do that, they will be required to convert some of their water right, currently allowed for irrigation, to be used for bottled water. That approval would come from the Washington State Dept. of Ecology. Even if the conversion was approved, the total amount of water the Doziers could pump from the ground would not increase.

Kimball's most important point is that, how the Doziers use the water rights they own is not a county decision.

"A lot of people misunderstand the decision we're being asked to make," Kimball said. "This is strictly a land use issue." He feels that the planning commission and the county commissioners need to focus on the issues related to whether having another industrial-type use on agricultural land is a good idea. The county already allows wineries and distilleries on ag-zoned land.

Kimball says he is not sure whether he will support the change in the end, but that the decision needs to be made after careful study by the planning commission of the land-use issues involved. Even if he does support the revision, he definitely believes that a conditional use permit should be required prior to a water bottling facility being allowed in an ag zone.

Kimball is careful to point out that an important fact gets overlooked by many people who strongly oppose the zoning change: Water bottling is already allowed on industrial-zoned land in Walla Walla County, and has been for years. If a farmer were to convert part of their water right for bottling, they could build a bottling facility in an industrial zone right now, truck the water there, and start bottling.

Kimball says he disagrees with the argument that many people make, that just because the majority of people who have spoken out on the issue are against the proposed zoning change, therefore it's the commissioners' duty to go along with that position. That was the opinion expressed by the Walla Walla Union Bulletin on their editorial page.

"Public opinion can't control what people do with their private property," which is what a water right is, Kimball said. He also pointed out that the people who have spoken out are a small number, compared to the population in the county.

Since Kimball comes from a family of farmers, and I don't, he explained to me briefly how the Dept. of Ecology makes decisions on water right conversions. He said the department generally allows those rights to be converted for what they consider to be "beneficial use." And Ecology considers water bottling to be a "beneficial use." So he believes that a request by the Doziers to convert part of their water right for bottling would likely be approved.

Since we already have a system in place that determines how water can be allocated for agricultural and industrial use, it seems to me that those who believe that the water under Walla Walla County should not be used for bottling need to take that up with the Dept. of Ecology.

Despite what a lot of people appear to think, water bottling is already allowed in the County. So are wineries, breweries and distilleries, which also use lots of water.

Right now, wineries are allowed in agricultural zones in the county. The Doziers are simply asking that water bottling facilities be added to the list of allowed uses in ag zones.

Kimball is right that the planning commission and the county commissioners should be allowed to take the time to address that question on its merits, and not dismiss it up front simply because a lot of people have a problem with the idea of bottled water.


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