That illegally pumped water could have provided water to more than 4,000 homes for a year.
The Odessa aquifer in central Washington has been rapidly losing water since 1980. But that didn’t stop the four landowners from illegally using the water to irrigate their alfalfa, timothy hay and potatoes last season.
The Washington Department of Ecology fined the four more than $600,000, altogether. The department estimates those crops may have been sold for more than $1 million.
The landowners irrigated their crops for 3.5 months after the department ordered them to stop.
An ecology spokeswoman said these fines are among the largest issued for illegal water use. The department identified the four individuals as Michael Schmidt, Ron Fode, and Randy and Michele Kiesz.
“These landowners willfully ignored the law and tapped into a vulnerable aquifer without a legal right to do so,” said Mary Verner, Ecology’s Water Resources program manager, in a news release. “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.”
Over the years, people have had to drill deeper and deeper wells to get drinking water from the aquifer.
In 2004, the state Legislature passed a law that prohibited people to use water from the Odessa aquifer for irrigation if they are otherwise able to get water from the Columbia River.
State, federal and public agencies have invested more than $200 million to slow the aquifer’s decline and make it easier to get water from the Columbia River. They’ve spent money on projects like widening irrigation canals to help farmers get irrigation water to their crops.
The landowners have 30 days to appeal the fines.