Q&A: Washington’s Ecology director speaks on ag water quality
Feb. 11 marked a year since Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Maia Bellon to direct the state Department of Ecology.
In that year, agriculture has seen an 8-1 state supreme court ruling against Dayton, Wash., farmer Joe Lemire, requiring him to take steps recommended by Ecology to protect nearby Pataha Creek from potential pollution by his 29 cattle. In addition, the department sent letters to 32 Eastern Washington landowners indicating “a substantial potential to pollute” nearby waters. Those letters have been criticized by many in the industry for being too vague and coming across as threatening.
Bellon spoke by telephone with the Capital Press about her emphasis on water quality and her desire to forge good partnerships with agriculture. The interview has been edited for length.
Q. What did you as director of Ecology take away from the state supreme court’s ruling in the Joe Lemire case last year?
A. Upon reflection, what it really drove home to me was that the supreme court essentially codified the authorities Ecology has been using over the last many years in terms of agricultural pollution issues. It didn’t seem to me to be new, different or broader than what we were already doing. It simply was a recognition of the way we’ve been interpreting the state law, as adopted by our legislature, and the way we’ve been implementing that law was something that was consistent with the intent of the original statute.
Q. What lessons should Washington farmers take away from that case?
A. Our agency works really hard to make sure we are engaging in a thoughtful process where we are listening to the agricultural community to try to help them meet their needs in terms of their management practices, while in the same token, doing our best efforts to ensure clean waters across the state of Washington.
What I’d like the agricultural community to take away from that is that we’re being as fair as we can. Quite frankly, we don’t move to enforcement or penalty actions in the first instance. We always move in a way where we’re trying to be cooperative, provide technical assistance and work very closely with the agricultural community before we ever take those formal enforcement tools the legislature has given us.
Q. There appears to be a deep mistrust of Ecology by farmers. Are you aware of this, and how do you plan to address it?
A. I am hearing concerns across parts of the agricultural community, and I think what has happened, when the supreme court issued its opinion in Lemire, it kind of put a focus on this area of work. Things, I believe, have been taken a bit out of context in terms of the work that we do.
There are 39,000 to 40,000 farms and ranches across the whole state of Washington. The record will show you on average, the Department of Ecology has only issued two penalties a year over the last five-year period of time dealing with agricultural pollution. I think our record shows we have been very judicious in using this authority. We have stuck with our principle of working cooperatively and in a technical assistance mode with landowners, farmers and ranchers in the first instance before ever moving to an enforcement role.
Q. The letters that were sent out last fall as part of routine watershed maintenance were also greeted with alarm by ranchers. How do you respond to those concerns?
A. What we did in that circumstance is we sent letters out to a small number of agricultural producers to ask them, really, if they would engage with us to see if there were issues occurring associated with their practices and to work in a voluntary, compliant fashion to have those practices have better impact on water quality. When we do those types of assessments across the state, we’re really trying to find ways to improve those water bodies that have been impaired.
When those letters went out, we started trying to have that communication with those landowners right around the time the Lemire decision was issued. I think somehow they got connected up, that the Lemire decision’s been issued and now Ecology is being very aggressive with using this particular authority with regards to looking at substantial potential to pollute.
The timing just ended up not really working out well, because I think people were connecting the dots on something that wasn’t our intent.
In the future, I’m thinking of doing it differently in terms of what a letter would say. Or maybe first we do a phone call or ask someone to sit down and come to our offices and meet with us to talk about these issues. So big lessons learned there to try and make sure we don’t alarm segments of the agriculture community when we’re trying to find a voluntary method for cleaning up our water bodies.
Q. There are now proposed bills to alter language in state law for more of a science-based approach compared to the language that says “in the opinion of” Ecology.
A. I think several of those bills are by virtue of the concern about the Lemire decision and the interpretation the Lemire decision has gone beyond what the legislature intended when it adopted the state water quality laws.
Having an extreme position that Ecology shouldn’t be able to even talk to people about substantial potential to pollute really does a disservice to the entire agricultural community. I’ve spent a lot of time out in the fields over the summer, fall and early winter at ranches, at farms. We have incredible stewards in our farmers and ranchers in the state of Washington. Many of them have told me they have just as strong an interest in clean water running through their property as in having a strong agricultural practice.
I truly believe that’s the majority of our agricultural community’s belief, and I support that. That’s what the reflection should be in terms of our agriculture community, not a perception that there should be no laws, parameters or sideboards on agricultural pollution events in the rare circumstance that they do occur.
Q. You have expressed a desire to work with the industry to address water quality issues. How are those efforts going and what are they going to look like?
A. I am intending to form an agricultural water quality advisory committee. What I’m planning to do is get formal invitations out to several agricultural associations that are really working on these types of issues and have boots on the ground in the agricultural community to sit with me, meet every five to seven weeks or so to really talk about big, tough issues in terms of marrying up water quality work with farming and agricultural practices.
Some of the associations I want to invite to send a representative to sit with me on this advisory committee are the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Washington State Cattlemen’s Association, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the Pacific Northwest Poultry Association and the Washington State Dairy Federation.
I have asked and received an answer from a gentleman I asked to co-chair this committee with me out of the Methow Valley, Vic Stokes. (Stokes is president of the cattlemen’s association.) Vic runs cows and understands water quality, water rights. It would be good for him to sit with me as co-chair and he agreed to do that.
I want to get that feedback firsthand from folks working through these issues, that have these experiences, have the seasoned advice to give to me as I try to figure out how to implement the state water quality laws that the legislature has put on the books.
I’m planning to have the first meeting around the middle to end of March. That will be the kickoff meeting.
Q. What should farmers expect from the Department of Ecology under your leadership?
A. They should expect that I’m reasonable, I’m fair and that I want success for all of us. Success for all of us is ensuring clean waters in the state of Washington and continuing to have a strong agricultural economy.
I firmly believe that clean water and a strong agricultural economy are not mutually exclusive. I believe they can exist hand-in-hand, and each benefits the other. Good management practices in the long run save farmers and ranchers money on the back end.
At the end of the day, I still may have to make some tough choices on individual circumstances or a case-by-case situation that is problematic under the state’s Clean Water Act. But when I do that, I will have been thoughtful about it, thoroughly briefed and understand the ramifications of that. I really take this role that I have seriously in terms of honoring all of those interests.