At a recent legislative hearing in the capital of Washington, Olympia, the lobbyist for the Washington State Horticultural Association (WSHA), Jim Halstrom, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvVO8tJc7zI) publicly opposed legislation (House Bill 2192) that would provide new water to allow apple and tree fruit growers to grow additional acreage of organic tree fruit.
House Bill 2192 and its companion bill (Senate Bill 6028) would promote increased production of organic crops as well as biofuel crops along the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington State. The bills have received the support of 21 co-sponsors in the House and 15 co-sponsors in the Senate.
The reason that HB 2192 and SB 6028 have received widespread support from legislators is because the bills provide some additional irrigation water to help meet the increasing need to produce more biofuel crops and organic crops as a result of the following new laws, rules and policies that have been enacted or implemented by the Washington State Legislature and various state agencies over the past few years which have created significant increases in demand for biofuel crops and organic crops, say proponents such as the Organic Tree Fruit Growers Alliance.
But Halstrom said the legislation would create a dangerous precedent. Specifically, Halstrom said “this bill provides for a special preferred status of water right and … will lead to subsequent legislation establishing other preferred status water rights … the provisions could effectively result in impairment of senior water rights.”
Proponents of the bills say they would help to alleviate some of the competition between biofuel crops and food crops by providing the opportunity for farmers to receive a little new or additional water to irrigate dry land or new ground to grow biofuel crops. Furthermore, a considerable amount of the biofuel feedstock currently processed in Washington State is imported from other countries and other states, so many legislators strongly believe the bills would help to reduce imports of biofuel feedstock such as palm oil from critical habitats in Southeast Asia.
Proponents also say they are very surprised by the WSHA’s “unilateral opposition” of the legislation that would allow farmers to obtain a small amount of new water from the Columbia River and the Snake River to help increase production of high-value organic tree fruit and other organic (and biofuel) crops in Washington State.
However WSHA Executive Director Bruce Grim notes that the WSHA Board of Directors hasn’t taken a position on the legislation. Grim did say, however, that he personally wonders if it is good policy to create special water rights for special uses. “The farmer should decide how he wants to use the water,” he says.
Out of the 100-plus million boxes of apples grown in the state, only about 6 to 8% are produced organically, Grim notes, so the legislation would be catering to a relatively small number of users. “This is probably not a good precedent,” he says. “Why carve this out for organic or biofeul production? I’m not sure it’s good policy.”
As a practical matter, to enforce the legislation, state officials would have to come out and evaluate exactly how growers are using water. “I don’t favor or oppose organic production, but these restrictions are a concern,” says Grim. “Do we really need to layer on more bureaucracy?”
Instead, when it comes to such a critical issue such as water, Grim believes that all growers should be working toward a common goal. “Let’s work together to create more water storage for agriculture,” he concludes.