PASCO, Wash. — Increased state Department of Ecology enforcement against cattle polluting streams was a hot topic between ranchers and Ecology officials at the annual meeting of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
One hour set aside for discussion became more than three at the Pasco Red Lion Hotel on Nov. 14.
Ecology sent letters to 30 ranchers in Eastern Washington this past summer informing them they need to take action to control such pollution. Ecology increased enforcement because it already had been planning to, not because of the August state Supreme Court ruling against rancher Joe Lemire, upholding Ecology’s authority, said Kelly Susewind, Ecology’s water quality program manager from Olympia.
Ecology will continue to work collaboratively with ranchers and provide technical assistance to decrease pollution, turning to tougher enforcement as a last resort, Susewind said.
“You both seem like reasonable men to me but you should go back to charm school because your letter is frightening,” John Buckhouse, retired Oregon State University rangeland specialist, told Susewind and Chad Atkins, Ecology water quality program specialist from Spokane.
Much of the discussion had to do with 35-foot buffers from streams that Ecology is extending to 50 to 75 feet to get federal Environmental Protection Agency funding. Ranchers said that takes away too much of their grazing. Atkins agreed with Colfax rancher Tom Kammerzell that ranchers could continue to graze within buffers if they don’t accept Ecology funding for fencing and streams aren’t polluted.
Kammerzell said he’s seen upward of 165 deer in his pasture where there’s only 16 cows and questioned why Ecology won’t use DNA testing to determine the source of fecal coliform pollution in streams. Susewind said he’s open to DNA testing but that it hasn’t proven perfect regarding pollution from dairies. Another rancher said samples weren’t clear between cattle and dogs.
State Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said the law allowing Ecology to take action on a “substantial potential to pollute” is way too subjective and vague. Susewind said Ecology is not looking at hypothetical future potential but clear signs of reoccurring pollution. Visible indicators include water nutrients, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, acidity and fecal coliform bacteria, he said.
Rancher Dan Downs raised the issue that a court ruling has upheld ranchers’ right to water their cattle in the Yakima River but not allowing diversion of water from the river for cattle. He asked how that right squares with cattle not being able to defecate in streams. Atkins responded that ranchers have the right to water cattle in the river but that pollution law still applies.
Toni Meacham, a Connell attorney and executive director of the Washington Agriculture Legal Foundation, said statistics Atkins used regarding the amount of manure cattle produce were inaccurate. She asked Atkins why Whitman County rancher Jon Jones, an Ecology employee, received no letter when two of his neighbors did. Atkins said he doesn’t know who owns the land when he’s looking for pollution and that he believes Jones buffers his cattle from the stream.
Ann Hennings, a Sprague rancher, faulted Ecology for sending letters instead of approaching ranchers in person.
“Chad, it’s people skill,” she said. “People to people, and problem-solving will start. Mailing to the person and problems exacerbate.”
Ecology has gotten into tough confrontations going in person, Atkins responded.
“All day long ranchers run into unpleasantness,” Hennings later said. “They (Ecology officials) are paid. It’s part of the risk of doing their jobs. It’s a doable deal.”