DAILY RECORD – KARL HOLOPPA – ELLENSBURG -Top of Form Bottom of FormAn official with the Washington State Department of Agriculture said solar facilities can have long-term ramifications for farmland during a panel discussion sponsored by the Kittitas Valley League of Women Voters on Wednesday.
Kelly McLain, a senior natural resource scientist and policy adviser, said her largest concern with solar siting came from conversations she had with five soil scientists that work across the state. She said they all told her the process of bringing in gravel and compacting the ground to place solar panels on makes the land unviable for agricultural use once the lease for the solar facility is up. She said the process of repairing land that has been compacted for decades is unrealistic.
“You can put a warehouse on it, you can put other agricultural infrastructure on it,” McLain said. “You will not farm that land again.”
About 25 people attended the discussion at the Hal Holmes Center in Ellensburg. Other panel members included Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell, retired Washington State University agricultural economist Dick Carkner, Kathi Pritchard of Save our Farms and Kittitas County Solar Facilities Citizens Advisory Committee members Marlene Pfeifer and Howard Lyman.
TUUSSO Energy has proposed building five solar projects on agricultural land near Ellensburg that would produce a combined 25 megawatts of energy. In April the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council approved a fast track review process for the sites. Draft site agreements released last week spell out the decommissioning process and site restoration plan for the sites.
TUUSSO opted for the state review process instead of going to the county for permits. Kittitas County implemented a moratorium on new commercial solar projects in January 2017, which is set to expire next month. The county has been working on new rules for commercial solar project permitting for several months.
The panel discussion didn’t include anyone from the solar industry. Representatives from TUUSSO couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.
ACREAGE FOR AGRICULTURE
McLain said there is a critical mass necessary for any industry to exist, and with agriculture, the total acreage available is a large component of that mass.
“Having a critical mass of agriculture land base is extremely important,” McLain said. “It’s one of the reasons why when the Growth Management Act was passed, they require counties to identify natural resource lands that fall into the bucket of mining, forestry and agriculture.”
McLain said the Growth Management Act has a well-set process of planning and local guidance and the process takes time. She said when things like solar projects come up, residents need to have a conversation as a community to identify the path forward.
“If people can go around the local planning process, then it defeats the entire purpose,” McLain said. “It is difficult to conceptualize why we would be making localized energy-based decisions outside of the county process. That’s a hard thing for us, so we’ve commented on that.”
McLain said not all prime agriculture land is the same. She said there are counties that placed thousands of acres under that designation during planning processes because they didn’t know what else to do with it. She said due to limited water supplies for irrigation, much of that land will never be farmed. She brought up the fact that Kittitas County junior water right holders received 47 percent of their allotment during the drought year of 2015.
“You cannot farm all of the land,” McLain said. “You prioritize where you put your highest dollar value crops, and to be fair at the Department of Agriculture, we’d rather you not put permanent crops on land that doesn’t have consistent and stable water because then our losses are huge.”
McLain said prime agricultural land is important because it is a limited resource, but questions must be considered about the land, such as what crops can be grown and whether they can survive a severe drought.
“Instead of having droughts every 10 to 15 to 25 years, we’re seeing droughts that are going to happen every five,” McLain said. “In a place where we are a junior water right holder like Kittitas County, that is a big concern about whether that land stays prime agricultural land.”
McLain said with the explosive growth rate in Washington state, the energy grid will need to grow along with it. She said the farm population is aging, with the average farmer being 62 years old. She said it is important farmers have an opportunity to decide what they want to do with their land.
“They need to be able to decide what’s the right fit for their family,” McLain said. “If they don’t have a family member that wants to farm that ground, maybe they be able to shave off 40 acres and do what they want with it. That needs to be part of the conversation because we don’t currently have enough farmers to take over the ground.”
Lyman, a retired farmer and Kittitas County Citizens Solar Advisory Committee member, said it concerns him that the county wants to prohibit solar facilities on all irrigated farmland. He said as a farmer, he does not always have water to irrigate all his acreage even if all the acreage is classified as irrigated farmland.
Lyman said he should have the right to make the decision to use unprofitable land he pays taxes on to lease to solar facilities if he thinks it’s the best financial decision for himself and his family.
“I’ve been a farmer long enough to know that not all land is made equally,” Lyman said. “With global climate change we are going to see less water at peak irrigation needs.”
Lyman said the county’s solar committee recommends developers have a bond on solar sites, so that if the facility stops being used there is money to remove it and restore the land to its original condition.
“The nice thing about it is I’m not committed forever,” Lyman said.
Lyman said changes in battery technology for solar power will create an astronomical demand for solar, and that the county needs to work to provide that infrastructure before the technology is developed.
“We need to get our act together,” Lyman said. “We need to use our water to grow the best income crops that we can when we have water available and we need to be open to alternative crops that will allow our farmers to remain financially viable.”
Lyman said the needs of farmers and their families must be considered when talking about renewable energy.
“My concern is that of an old farmer,” Lyman said. “I would like to be able to use my farm, make good solid economic decisions for me, for the future. Do not zone out solar on all irrigated land. In my opinion that is a drastic mistake.”
Picture: Karl Holappa