Oregon Department of Agriculture to Monitor Water Quality and Require Farmers to Reduce Pollution
Mateusz Perkowski/Capital Press Julie DiLeone, rural lands program supervisor for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, explains the importance of streamside vegetation during a recent field tour of Johnson Creek near Portland, Ore. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is expanding a program aimed at water quality compliance among landowners, which may drive them to seek help from soil and water conservation districts.
Increased scrutiny of water quality by Oregon's agriculture experts may convince landowners to voluntarily improve stream conditions on their properties.
A project aimed at restoring riparian habitat along several creeks in Oregon’s Multnomah County has hit a roadblock.
Despite numerous entreaties from the local soil and water conservation district, most landowners have refused free streamside tree planting that would reduce temperatures in the creek.
“Some people are just not interested in having someone else working on their property,” said Julie DiLeone, rural lands program supervisor for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.
Even though the trees are planted at no charge, people are reluctant to have crews come onto their land and to relinquish control over the management of streamsides, she said.
Only about 25-30 percent of stream miles targeted by the district are enrolled in the restoration program, DiLeone said.
“We don’t know if that’s going to be enough or not” to bring down temperatures, she said.
Increased scrutiny of water quality by Oregon’s agriculture regulators may help the state’s soil and water conservation districts overcome such resistance among landowners.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture plans to expand its oversight of streams and rivers that flow through agricultural lands next year, which may spur interest in voluntary riparian improvement projects, experts say.
“If more people come in the door, at least in our district, that’s great because we have the capacity to help more people,” said Laura Masterson, an organic farmer and board member of the East Multnomah S&WCD.
For decades, the agency’s strategy for compliance with the federal Clean Water Act on farmland was largely complaint-driven, said John Byers, manager of ODA’s agricultural water quality program.
This method is only reliable to a point, however, since some water quality problems undefined like manure piles near waterways or streams denuded of vegetation undefined may never be reported, he said.
“Neighbors don’t always want to turn in neighbors,” said Byers.
About two years ago, ODA decided to “self-initiate” compliance with water quality rules, relying on publicly available information like aerial photographs and topographical maps, to identify potential problem areas and notify the landowners.
Since the agency doesn’t have the resources to conduct in-depth monitoring of the whole state, the new approach was first tested in Wasco and Clackamas counties.
“We can’t be out on everybody’s ground in every month of the year,” said Doug Krahmer, a blueberry farmer and member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture, which advises ODA.
In mid-2015, ODA intends to roll out the program in six to 12 new “strategic implementation areas” once Byers prioritizes where water quality improvements are most needed.
The decision is heartening for conservationist groups like the Oregon Environmental Council, which say the program will help ODA defend its water compliance efforts in the future.
“It sounds like the outreach they did has been really effective,” said Allison Hensey, agriculture and watersheds program director at OEC. “I really hope they will do a lot more in the future now that they’ve worked out a few kinks and learned some things.”
Water quality degradation from agricultural activity is often related to a lack of vegetation, as bare ground can cause sediment runoff into streams and a lack of trees and shrubs may destabilize streambanks and raise water temperatures, Byers said.
The new compliance approach has worked in Clackamas and Wasco counties, where ODA sent letters to landowners letting them know water conditions on their properties were being evaluated, he said.
The agency also told landowners of particular water quality concerns and advised them to fix the problem, he said. For example, ODA had significant or serious concerns about four parcels in Wasco County, and the notice convinced the owners to take action.
“It’s about compliance, not enforcement,” Byers said. “We have that regulatory backstop but we have been successful in not having to use it.”
ODA simply tells landowners they can’t pollute but the solution is up to them. For technical assistance, though, they can seek help from their local soil and water conservation district.
Although the districts can help landowners achieve compliance, it’s important to note they don’t have a regulatory function, said Masterson, who also serves on the Oregon Board of Agriculture.
The distinction is important because people shouldn’t be afraid to come to districts for help, she said. “That firewall is critical.”
While there has been concern that landowner requests for assistance may overwhelm some smaller districts, it’s probably wise to cross that bridge when we come to it, said Krahmer, a board member of the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District. “To date, there has been no evidence that is the case.”