Whatcom berry farmer appeals $102K in fines for illegal water use

Raspberries in a field in Whatcom County
Raspberries in a field in Whatcom County Bellingham Herald file

A Whatcom County farmer accused of illegally watering his raspberries and failing to submit records on water use has appealed fines totaling $102,000.

Gurjant “George” Sandhu’s case will go before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board on Oct. 24-26.

The Washington state Department of Ecology fined Sandhu, doing business as Crystalview Raspberry Farm, on Dec. 16 for separate violations on two farms he operates in Whatcom County.

The first fine was $90,000 for illegally irrigating a 220-acre raspberry farm for at least two years, Ecology said, adding that Sandhu didn’t have approved water rights for most of the property. His water rights allowed him to irrigate 35 acres, according to Ecology.

The second fine of $12,000 was for not submitting accurate water metering records for a 120-acre blueberry farm, a requirement that was part of a settlement for previous illegal water use, according to Ecology.

Sandhu has appealed both fines.

Ecology said it has tried to work with Sandhu to bring him into compliance with the law, since 2011 for the blueberry farm and 2015 for the raspberry farm.

Sandhu’s appeal said the fines were “unjust” and that Ecology hadn’t presented evidence of violations.

His attorney, Lesa Starkenburg-Kroontje, couldn’t be reached for comment.

In a December story in The Bellingham Herald, Starkenburg-Kroontje said her client attempted to work with Ecology and that the agency’s announcement of the fine contained “several statements of new information that differ from Sandhu’s facts.”

The last time a Whatcom County farmer was fined for illegal irrigation was in 2013, according to Kristin Johnson-Waggoner, communications manager for Ecology’s Water Resources division.

“We’ve issued a few penalties in the range of $60,000 to $80,000 in other areas of the state in the recent years” for water rights violations, she said. “Generally, penalties of this amount are for significant violations where warnings, informal enforcement and other formal enforcement efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Ecology said it received numerous complaints from water rights holders and others who were concerned about Sandhu using more water than he was authorized to use for irrigation.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea