Department of Ecology responds to concerns from BiZi Farms

DOE official says farm needs to test its well, among other things, in order to acquire water rights

The BiZi Farms truck welcomes guests to the farm's store at 9504 NE 119th St. The Zimmerman family has been farming the land since the 1870s. Courtesy of Paul Valencia/ClarkCountyToday.com

Editor’s Note: This article was produced and first published by Clark County Today, www.clarkcountytoday.com. It is published here with full attribution to and permission of ClarkCountyToday.com and Editor Ken Vance. The article was written by Clark County Today Reporter Paul Valencia.

A representative for the state Department of Ecology said a water rights application by BiZi Farms in Vancouver has not been denied, that the application is still in the process, but the farm owners have not completed the process.

Over the weekend, a social media post from representatives of the farm detailed their frustration with the state, noting that BiZi Farms’ application for water rights was denied. Bill Zimmerman, co-owner of the farm, went into further detail in an interview with Clark County Today on Monday. 

Jeff Zenk, a spokesperson for the Southwest Regional Office of the state’s Department of Ecology, said Wednesday morning that there were inaccuracies in Zimmerman’s descriptions.

“He has chosen to circumvent the process through a social media campaign,” Zenk said. “We stand ready to help Mr. Zimmerman, but he has to follow the law like everybody.”

At issue is a water well that the farm has used since the early 1900s. 

Zenk said the department has sent a “technical assistance letter” to the farm, noting the farm is exceeding the limit on the amount of water it can use without water rights.

“Mr. Zimmerman is watering his 100-acre fields with his domestic water well. Not supposed to exceed 5,000 gallons a day. He’s using his well well above that,” Zenk said.

Zenk said there have been no fines levied against BiZi Farms, and BiZi Farms can still work the process.

That process includes testing on the well, to determine its impact on fish and wildlife as well as the rights of existing water rights holders. The department has asked Zimmerman to put a meter on the well, to determine exactly how much water is being used.

“We don’t have it out for Mr. Zimmerman. It’s an unfortunate situation,” Zenk said. “It’s not ecology’s fault. It’s not Mr. Zimmerman’s fault. It’s the circumstance, and it’s the law. Can’t pretend there isn’t a problem here. We have to treat everyone equally and fairly.”

The Zimmerman family has been farming in Clark County since the 1800s. The well predates the state water code. Bill Zimmerman said Monday he thought his father had applied for water rights years ago, but once he realized that the farm did not have water rights, Bill Zimmerman turned in his application in 2009. Zimmerman said he got notice in November of 2020 that the application was denied.

Zenk said that is not the case. The application is still pending. But until Zimmerman completes the tests and puts a meter on the well, there is no way the department can issue water rights. If the farm continues to use more than 5,000 gallons a day from the well, Zenk said the farm is operating illegally.

If the family had applied for water rights decades ago, Zenk said there might have been the possibility of having “grandfather” rights approved. That did not happen, though, so this is where it stands.

“That’s unfortunate for Mr. Zimmerman, but it’s also the law,” Zenk said. “Can’t just water because you’ve been watering there. The law says you need water rights if you exceed 5,000 gallons a day.”

Zenk said there are ways for the farm to resolve the issues.

  • Follow through with the testing on the well and complete the process to secure water rights.
  • Hook up to the Clark County PUD water main to water the farm.
  • Purchase water rights from other water rights holders.

Zimmerman said Monday that all of those options are costly.

“Nobody wants to shut Mr. Zimmerman down,” Zenk said. “We’re sympathetic to his situation. He’s not being singled out or treated any differently.”

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Joanna Yorke is the managing editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. She has worked in the journalism field since 2010 after graduating from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. Yorke worked at The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground for six years and then worked at and helped start ClarkCountyToday.com.