Future of BiZi Farms threatened by water rights issue

Zimmerman family has been farming in Clark County since the 1800s

This is a story more than 100 years in the making and a story that also just got started over the weekend.

A post on social media on Saturday noted that BiZi Farms was in a bind over a water rights issue, an issue that could impact BiZi’s ability to farm in the future. The Zimmerman family has been farming in Clark County since the 1800s.

Bill Zimmerman, outside the farm store at BiZi Farms, is concerned about the future of the store and his farm after the state’s Department of Ecology denied the farm water rights. The family has been using a well that was built more than 100 years ago. Photo by Paul Valencia
Bill Zimmerman, outside the farm store at BiZi Farms, is concerned about the future of the store and his farm after the state’s Department of Ecology denied the farm water rights. The family has been using a well that was built more than 100 years ago. Photo by Paul Valencia

“I love that we can be here for the community. Kids can come to the pumpkin patch. Families can buy fresh local products,” said Bill Zimmerman, co-owner of the family-run business. “It pleases me to no end when people pour in here to buy strawberries. We’re doing the best we can to take care of their needs.”

All of that is threatened now over a water rights issue.

The family installed a well on the property around 1900, before Washington water code debuted in 1917, and long before today’s water laws were written. Through the years, the family has made improvements to that well, Zimmerman said.

Bill Zimmerman said that he thought his father applied for water rights in the 1970s. Turns out, it was for water certification. Bill Zimmerman said he is not even sure of the difference but as soon as he realized the farm did not have water rights, back in 2008 or 2009, BiZi Farms applied.

It took 12 years, but the farm got word in November of 2020: The state of Washington’s Department of Ecology denied the application.

In a letter that was posted on social media, BiZi Farms noted, among a list of reasons, the DOE said that water must be reserved for its “highest and best uses,” and the DOE determined that the best uses are for development and developers.

“It’s the old Catch-22,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t have the water. But if I sell the land and a developer comes in, they can have all the water.”

Zimmerman used the words “bewildering” and “perplexing” while describing the ruling. 

The BiZi Farms truck welcomes guests to the farm’s store at 9504 NE 119th Street. The Zimmerman family has been farming the land since the 1870s. Photo by Paul Valencia
The BiZi Farms truck welcomes guests to the farm’s store at 9504 NE 119th Street. The Zimmerman family has been farming the land since the 1870s. Photo by Paul Valencia

During the interview Monday afternoon at the farm, located at 9504 NE 119th Street in Vancouver, a family that was there to buy fresh food took a moment to visit with the livestock.

“Here’s a family enjoying the animals,” Zimmerman said, pointing to a mom and her children. “That’s not good use?”

Throughout the interview, dozens of customers arrived at the farm store. There have been few slow periods this summer, Zimmerman said. Since COVID, he said more and more people are realizing just where their food comes from, and they are placing a higher value on locally produced food.

Zimmerman questions the decision by the DOE.

“Does the community not mean anything to you folks? Thousands of people come through here looking for fresh fruit, fresh vegetables. Does that mean anything to the DOE?”

With the denial of water rights, Zimmerman answered his own question. 

“They said, ‘We really don’t care.’ That, to me, is tragic.”

Zimmerman said he understands that the well needs a permit. The state asked for a test. The Zimmermans, working with a groundwater consulting firm, were told the test would be too costly and nearly impossible to conduct. The Zimmermans said the water table is unaffected by the farm’s well.

Calls to the Department of Ecology on Monday and Tuesday were unreturned prior to the posting of this story.

In March, Zimmerman said the farm received a notice from the enforcement division of the DOE, reminding the farm of the denial of water rights. BiZi Farms, Zimmerman said, is still irrigating its 105 acres, using the well, as the farm goes through the appeals process.

So what happens if the farm cannot use the well or cannot find an affordable solution to find water from other sources? Zimmerman said the crop of strawberries would be cut 40 to 50 percent. Blackberries would be cut 65 percent.

“If we shut the water down … all the corn, cucumbers, the beans, the tomatoes, all of that will go away,” he added.

If that happens, decisions will have to be made.

For now, the farm is preparing for the family’s 150th year in Clark County. Zimmerman, with a laugh, insists that he has not been farming for 150 years. His family has. 

Seriously, though, he is concerned about the future.

“We are working that out, trying to see if it would be worthwhile to even do it, to keep the farm store open,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t know.”

Zimmerman insists the farm is not asking for free water. He knows there will be costs associated with water rights. But he believes there has to be a way for the Department of Ecology to work with a farm that has nearly 150 years of history.

He hopes the community will have his back, too. He said he would appreciate it if his customers could reach out to the DOE and ask the agency to come up with a viable solution. The farm posted a link to a Google document with its point of view in this dispute, as well as ways to help: https://docs.google.com/document/d/16g__runYnlNydfeAej6Bknchh2aJTGPOmgnOWhwTTpE/edit

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Tammie Gregg
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Tammie Gregg
1 month ago

You should be grandfathered in because the well has been there before their rules

Yana Helmes
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Yana Helmes
1 month ago

The DOE cares about taxes! Think about it, if Bizi farms disappears, and they are prioritizing water to developers and developments, they’ll develop those 105 acres so fast! Think of the taxes and fees they’d gain from putting in 400 new houses! It’s disgusting.

Raptor Lover
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Raptor Lover
1 month ago
Reply to  Yana Helmes

I agree whole heartedly. They are stepping on wonderful folks and their natural farms to get to the big bucks that will line their pockets. Someone is getting paid off …individuals. Check those peoples bank accounts and safety deposit boxes and personal safes. I bet you will find some huge stashes of money thats unaccounted for.

This whole situation is disgusting, disturbing, and disappointing. And yes, it is evil!

VANCOUVER…you make me sick!

Last edited 1 month ago by Raptor Lover
Kathy Zimmerman
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Kathy Zimmerman
1 month ago
Reply to  Raptor Lover

Just one thing to clarify…this ruling by the Dept. of Ecology is a state-level decision. Although it is affecting us here in Vancouver, this is an issue with a State agency, not Clark County or the City.

Christian Gruber
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Christian Gruber
1 month ago

This is, hands down, the most transparent power and tax grab. “Highest and best uses” is a greater-good fig-leaf, to conceal this naked aggression. I would suggest someone investigate what ties the developer has to the agency adjudicating this matter, and I would further argue that even the premise is faulty – the highest and best use of the water is to support the uses of the property by its owners, not putative future uses by developers. This is a form of administrative abuse, creating a no-win situation, forcing the present owners, who have more legitimacy in history to this property than does the State of Washington, to sell to developers. Shameful, deceitful, and evil.

Keith Voni
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Keith Voni
1 month ago

Everyone in clark county would sign a petion for you and also a go fund me for legal fees. persons in this community feel that there is more to land use than development. The farm is paramount in giving our children and elders a rural experience that is not available to most. Everyone loves it and the Zimmermans go huge efforts every year to make this happen. A safe and healthy family experience. to push you off your land for so called “development” is not right. Take them to court, invite us. We’ll fill up the courtroom and the grounds with our supporters. See how they like explaining themselves on tv.

Raptor Lover
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Raptor Lover
1 month ago
Reply to  Keith Voni

AMEN❣❣❣❣

Sean Streeter
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Sean Streeter
1 month ago

I sent this email message to Jeff Zenk at DOE:

Jeff:

I saw the article regarding BiZi farms in the Columbian this morning and also had an opportunity to read your response to the article. Your response relied heavily on the rules by which water can be used by entities and the duty of your organization to enforce those laws. I understand this argument, but unfortunately your agency is not fairly enforcing these rules.

In May of 2019 my wife and I reported activity at a mining site in East Clark County that has been operating without permits since 2017. This site is popularly known as the Zimmerly Pit or Washougal Pit. The operator, Nutter Corporation, has constructed water retention structures of sufficient size they would require a reservoir permit. The operator has also dug the pit to intersect the water table and used these ground water resources to wash gravels as part of their operation, all without a permit. Furthermore, the operator at that time had not listed the site as active with DOE and had not provided any water quality monitoring information to DOE. I am not aware if they have provided any water monitoring reports to DOE since we reported them but you may want to check on that.

An inspection team from the DOE was sent on site in August of 2019. We were provided the official report of that inspection and the operator got off with a proverbial wag of the finger. They were not instructed to file for a permit to use ground water in their gravel washing operation. They were not fined for illegal use of that resource or for constructing retention ponds that exceeded the standard to require a reservoir permit. They were instructed to reduce the height of their water impoundment structures, which to date they have not complied with at all. Nor were they told they needed to perform studies to determine the impact of their water usage on fish, wildlife or the local water table.

Can you please provide a reasonable explanation to the group I have here on this message why Nutter Corporation was given a complete pass on their illegal use of water resources and illegal impoundment structures while your agency is coming down like a ton of bricks on BiZi farms? A farm that provides valuable locally sourced food to our community. A farm that has been using water from the same well that was installed before the turn of the last century. A farm that provides educational opportunities to children and helps them get the perfect pumpkin for Halloween.

It seems to me that there is a complete lack of fairness to the enforcement activities of the DOE and as a member of the public that has reported significant concerns with illegal use of water from a large politically well connected business in the region I would like an answer from you to my question. Why does Nutter Corporation get to do whatever they want with water resources but BiZi Farms doesn’t? I greatly look forward to your reply.

Tim Haiducek
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Tim Haiducek
1 month ago

It seems this goes along with the vic project problem. How does a unelected body of people have dictatorial powers over the electorate. Things need to change. “RESIST”
As Rand Paul stated.

April Kellmer
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April Kellmer
1 month ago

Start a gofundme account and you will see an outpouring of what the community feels about this historic farm!! Enough with the houses! Keep the history!

John Deer
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John Deer
1 month ago

Pretty lazy journalism to publish such a one sided story having given DOE only 2 days to respond.

Joan Doe
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Joan Doe
1 month ago
Reply to  John Deer

Actually you are wrong. Based on the fact it took 12 to 13 years for the DOE to deny Bizi farms rights application, I think the journalist was fine in giving them 2 days to reply. Chances are the unelected official wouldn’t have replied anyway. I question your judgement and wonder when you go to a casino do your root for the house?

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