SALEM — An initial assessment of how Oregon agriculture is affecting water quality in a specific watershed is highly encouraging, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba.
“The good news that has come out of that assessment is we have only identified about 2 percent of that whole stretch in Noyer Creek (one of two pilot projects that ODA has initiated) where we have agricultural activities on what we call bare ground,” Coba said.
Coba’s comments came at the Oregon Seed Growers League’s 73rd annual convention, held Dec. 2 and 3 at the Salem Convention Center. Participation at the convention topped 500, up from 435 the year before.
The state this past year initiated the two agricultural water quality pilot projects, one on Noyer Creek in Clackamas County and one on Mill Creek in Wasco County, to try to determine if its agricultural water quality program is adequately protecting the state’s water quality.
The assessment marks the first time the state has dedicated resources to monitoring the effectiveness of its efforts to protect water quality from agricultural practices.
The department anticipates expanding the pilot project to other watersheds in the future, Coba said.
“Our goal in the department is to have an agricultural water quality program that is effective, that keeps agriculture in business, that keeps agriculture economically viable,” Coba said.
Coba said she believes the agricultural community has done a good job of protecting water quality since 1993, when the state initiated its agricultural water quality program under Senate Bill 1010. The problem, she said, is the state has little data showing on-the-ground improvements.
“The challenge that has arisen the last couple of years has been questions about what agriculture is doing, and if things that we are doing on the ground are effective,” she said.
Coba characterized the initial assessment as “very good news for us and very good news for the industry.”
“If we can deliver that kind of news, as well as do some monitoring in that area and make progress where we do identify bare ground, I think that is really going to help us and the industry keep our agricultural water quality program in the framework that we want it, as opposed to moving to some place that, frankly, some environmental groups would like to go … and that is more along the lines of requiring mandatory buffers,” Coba said.
“Our follow-up now is to conduct outreach to those landowners (on Noyer Creek that have bare ground) and see if we can get them some help in technical assistance, and maybe some resources, and make improvements on their activities, so that they don’t have bare ground that could negatively impact water quality,” Coba said.
“It is important for us to start small, learn what works well, and identify what we need to tweak,” she said.
On another front, Coba said Gov. John Kitzhaber has put resources into water storage development — resources that could allow the state to develop more water storage in the future.
“For the first time in my tenure as director, we’re seeing a collective interest, and, frankly, a pressure on building, in terms of being able to identify new opportunities for water storage, particularly in light of climate change, in light of reducing snow pack,” she said.
“More and more people are recognizing that we’ve got to figure out ways to store more water in the state, whether it is for municipal uses, whether it is for wildlife, or, in particular, for agricultural uses and the economic benefit that comes within agriculture if you can apply water to land,” Coba said.
Although to date new water storage efforts are mostly centered on the east side of the state, she said, “There is certainly the recognition that in the summertime in the Willamette Valley, we run short of water.”
Coba ended her presentation by saying that the two hardest-hit sectors of Oregon agriculture, the nursery and grass seed industries, have rebounded from the economic downturn caused by the recession. And, she said, “The prognosis into the future is looking good. We continue to break our farm gate value records within the state of Oregon. I think the general public sentiment is people like Oregon agriculture.
“They don’t always understand or like the tools that we use,” she said. “Our job is to continue to tell our story about how important it is for us for us to have the tools that we need to keep this industry as strong as it is.
“But we are up to 15 percent of Oregon’s economy,” she said. “The future looks bright. There are a lot of new mouths out there that we predict we will have to be feeding in the next 30 years, so I think for us, if we continue to hang together, we can deal with these challenges that we are facing and continue to be a very viable part of Oregon’s economy in the future.”