The Oregon Department of Agriculture has asked Oregon’s 45 soil and water conservation districts to zero in on specific areas, and document changes, representing a change of direction in the state’s 20-year-old agricultural water quality program.
“The districts have done great work,” said John Byers, manager of Oregon’s agricultural water quality program. “They do riparian restoration work and other work to improve water quality. What we’ve asked them to do now is focus some of that work in a specific area in each of their districts, so we can measure progress.”
The new directive is part of the state’s effort to address critics of its agricultural water quality program.
Jerry Nicolescu, executive director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, said the districts back the department’s efforts.
“We know that a lot of good things have been done to protect water quality in the past,” Nicolescu said. “But have we done a good job of measuring that? No. And, frankly, it is beginning to bite us.”
Nicolescu said it is hard to convince people outside of agriculture that the industry has done a good job of protecting water quality.
“They still see brown water running and see algae blooming, and it is hard to convince them that all the work farmers and the districts have done has made a difference,” Nicolescu said.
“But, from everything I’ve seen, I’m convinced we’ve made a tremendous difference,” Nicolescu said. “It would be a lot worse if we hadn’t done what we’ve done.”
Nicolescu said critics point to the fact that the state has issued only three penalties for agricultural water quality infractions.
“They look at it like, ‘Hey, you’re not doing your job because you only found three of these,’” Nicolescu said. “On the other hand, maybe we could have had 3,000 of these incidents, but the districts and other agencies and individuals have been doing their job, and we’ve kept all but three from ending up in a regulatory situation.
“Can we do better? Yes,” he said. “Are we working to make it better? Yes. Is it going to change overnight? No. It takes time. Everything in nature takes time.
“But I think we’re going to get there,” he said. “I can’t tell you how soon, but I know we’re going to keep working on it. We’ll get it done.”
The ODA also has initiated two pilot projects, one in Wasco County and one in Clackamas County, where it is attempting to improve water quality on stretches of water that show excess levels of agricultural pollutants. As part of those projects, the department is documenting land conditions to determine where they can be improved, and working to improve conditions where they can.
The department also in recent years has been working with the Department of Environmental Quality on a pesticide stewardship partnership program, which works with landowners on a voluntary basis to improve agricultural practices in ways that limit agriculture’s impact on water quality. Those projects, like the pilot projects, are focusing on water-quality limited areas.
The ODA regulates the state’s agricultural water quality program under an agreement with the Oregon DEQ, which the federal EPA has designated as the lead agency to administer the Clean Water Act in Oregon.
Oregon’s agricultural water quality is administered under Senate Bill 1010, which Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law in 1993.