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WSU expert helps ranchers avoid pollution problems

Matthew Weaver
Washington State University Extension expert Stephen Van Vleet in Colfax, Wash., is working with ranchers concerned about the state Department of Ecology considering them presenting a possible pollution risk. Van Vleet advises farmers, and the agency, to take a look at the overall system on a local level.

COLFAX, Wash. — If ranchers are proactive, a Washington State University expert says, they may avoid being labeled as a potential pollutor by the state Department of Ecology.

Stephen Van Vleet, regional specialist for WSU Extension in Colfax, Wash., has been working with ranchers concerned about receiving letters from the agency saying they are polluting nearby water.

Van Vleet helps farmers develop a management plan to address areas of potential concern. He advises producers and the agency to consider best management options for the entire system, being environmentally friendly and economically viable.

Van Vleet hopes to preserve livestock production in the state, noting it has declined.

“Any time we lose agriculture and agricultural commodities, it’s not a good thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, Washington is becoming highly regulated.”

Rotating cattle into a riparian zone can decrease water temperature and improve vegetation. Leaving the cattle in one place all year could cause problems, but leaving them out can also negatively affect wildlife.

Grass systems can build up so high that rodents and birds introduce higher levels of fecal coliform, Van Vleet said.

“One of our best management tools we have is livestock,” he said, pointing to managing invasive plants. “Any riparian zone I would have, there would be a period of time I would want those animals in there to graze and manage that area.”

Van Vleet expressed frustration over the exclusion of tools like livestock under blanket requirements in national and state conservation programs.

Relying on science and monitoring for a specific location are necessary, he said.

“Automobile pollution is a lot more detrimental than a cow out there,” he said. “We pick on things we can actually control. So we start blaming livestock for methane problems. It’s bunk. We have much bigger issues that are causing a lot more problems than if we look at a few livestock.”

“It can be done if it’s done well,” said Kelly Susewind, water quality manager for Ecology.

The agency is interested in working with farmers on land management methods that protect water quality, Susewind said.

“If that included use of the riparian area, let’s have a talk and see what that looks like,” he said. “We have found most people don’t want to put the energy into doing it in a way that’s protective of water quality.”

Susewind said the agency is not planning a new wide assessment that results in a batch of letters being sent to landowners, as occurred last year. There may be some follow-up on some of the same farms, and the agency must follow up on complaints, he said.

Hay, Wash., rancher Jan Moore had Van Vleet look over her property, where she keeps four horses.

Van Vleet recommended more photos of the site and provided an outline for a farm management plan, Moore said.

Van Vleet recommends growers look into the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program or contact their conservation districts. They can also contact WSU Extension for suggestions to mitigate potential pollution problems. He believes the agency should work with districts to develop corrective management plans with farmers.



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