A controversial request to allow water bottling on agricultural lands in Walla Walla County took a step ahead Monday.
Walla Walla County commissioners voted unanimously to have the application by former county commissioner Perry Dozier move to the final docket of proposed amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and development regulations.
However, commissioners noted the application will not be part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan update due at the end of June. Since it is a development-regulation amendment, it can be considered later this year after review by staff and further public hearings.
The request by Perry and Darleen Dozier to allow a small-scale, water-bottling operation on their farmland near Waitsburg has aroused numerous protests by Waitsburg residents and others.
At previous public hearings, the majority of those who spoke on the proposal said it would allow water in the area’s deep aquifer to be depleted by having it extracted and shipped away.
Opponents pointed to a recent attempt by the Nestle Corporation to establish a water-bottling plant in Waitsburg. That company’s 2016 proposal was met with a flood of protests by residents, which resulted in the city sending Nestle a letter declining its offer.
Commissioners Jim Johnson, Todd Kimball and Jim Duncan all said on Monday that they struggled to reach their decisions, but the matter boiled down to rights, water and otherwise.
“I do have serious concerns with what this application requests,” Kimball said. “Water, in my opinion, is not to be wasted.”
But he went on to say it was not his or anyone else’s place to say what someone with a water right should do with their water. As an example, water can be used to irrigate marijuana, hops and tobacco, he said.
“Just because you don’t agree with what someone is using their water right for does not give you the right to decide what they use their water right for,” Kimball said.
In his comments, Johnson said that although a recent state Supreme Court decision indicates local officials need to consider protection of natural resources in making land-use decisions, “this, in my view, is a land-use decision not a ‘water’ decision.”
Johnson went to say he shared the concerns of many that allowing water bottling in agricultural and resource lands could “lead us down a path we may eventually regret.”
For that reason, he said, allowing the Doziers’ application to continue by moving it on to the final docket gives the county Planning Commission, county commissioners and planning department staff “the opportunity to study the ramifications of water bottling throughout the county and work toward solutions or restrictions that, in the end, serve the interests of our citizens in a more comprehensive manner.”
In his comments, Duncan reiterated a point he made at an earlier public hearing, saying that recurring claims of involvement by Nestle are mistaken.
“The Nestle Company is not referenced in the Dozier proposal, and I believe that the Nestle collusion fear is a misconception,” he said.
But Duncan said he also has “serious concerns with the Dozier proposal as submitted in the preliminary docket.”
He agreed with the county Planning Commission’s opinion that the request is too broad and that, as recommended by Community Development, it should be placed on the final docket for more clarification, further analysis, consideration and staff recommendations.