MEDICAL LAKE, Wash. — The Washington state Department of Ecology is sending letters to ranchers and other landowners about “clear indications” of water pollution, a department spokesperson says.
Brook Beeler, communications director for the Washington Department of Ecology Eastern Region office in Spokane, said 32 landowners received letters because there are “clear indications” that significant pollution has occurred in the past and will continue.
“We are not contacting landowners about hypothetical pollution,” she said.
Beeler said Ecology is offering farmers an opportunity to fix problems using available technical and financial assistance.
“If they don’t want to proactively fix their pollution situation, we may ask them to do so using our formal compliance tools,” she said. “The choice to work with us and receive funding for needed changes is a unique service for agricultural landowners. This is not available to most industries.”
According to Ecology, the types of conditions that cause pollution include bare ground and exposed soil, contaminated run-off, slumping stream banks and erosion, overgrazing of grasses, feeding livestock near water bodies, absence of woody vegetation, manure accumulations, extended animal access to streams and livestock paths and trails near riparian areas.
Beeler said the department identified 300 sites where livestock had access to water in eight area watersheds last spring.
Washington Agriculture Legal Foundation executive director Toni Meacham stressed that ranchers cannot ignore the letter from Ecology. The foundation created a response package asking for clarification of the letter, including a Freedom of Information Act request.
“How can we get to a solution if we don’t know what the problem is?” Meacham said.
The foundation has recruited retired Oregon State University rangeland ecology and management extension specialist John Buckhouse to visit ranches and farms and provide an expert opinion whether a farm operation has a substantial potential to pollute.
“Yes, you may have to make changes,” Meacham said. “If you do, you do, but at least we are going to have some science on our side to say whether you do or you don’t based on a scientific conclusion. If there is a problem, let’s deal with it. But if there’s not, Ecology has to back off.”
Buckhouse’s fees will be paid through the Washington Farm Bureau Legal Foundation. The foundation is also looking for donations to help with the costs.
“We are not against clean water,” Meacham said. “What we are for is protecting our private property rights and our water rights and having a scientific basis for any decisions that are made.”
Beeler said livestock producers are free to get livestock management advice from whomever they wish. But she cautions landowners that range specialists, for example, are not necessarily clean water specialists.
“It is our goal to eliminate livestock pollution to streams,” she said. “Clean water and profitable agricultural lands are not mutually exclusive. We can have both. While livestock sources of pollution pose unique challenges, the solutions are often fairly straightforward, easily implemented and relatively inexpensive.”
Meacham recommends contacting an organization the producer feels comfortable with and getting elected officials involved. Response letters should be sent with a return receipt requested to prove the producer responded to Ecology.
“You need to have someone in your corner; don’t do this alone,” Meacham told farmers. “Do something, do what you feel comfortable doing, but know you have allies and assets out there that will help you.”