By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- The Oregon Department of Agriculture has identified two pilot areas for studying a new method of applying its agricultural water quality program.
The department will focus on the Noyer Creek watershed in Clackamas County and the Mill Creek watershed in Wasco County in assessing an alternative to its existing program.
The department's current water quality program operates through what are known as Senate Bill 1010 plans. The regionally developed plans use a landscape-based approach to develop conditions that support clean water and healthy watersheds.
The program has been criticized in recent months for relying too much on voluntary participation and being too lax on enforcement.
Land owners involved in the plans, however, say the plans have done wonders for protecting the state's water quality, although they have no proof, given that conditions prior to the implementation of projects were not documented.
"(Senate Bill) 1010 has been tremendously effective," state Board of Agriculture member Jerome Rosa said at a board meeting June 6.
"Probably the biggest problem is we didn't measure (conditions at the start of projects)," Rosa said.
The method under study will include less reliance on complaints to trigger regulatory enforcement actions and more department-driven assessments of existing conditions through aerial photographs and other visual observations, said John Byers, a water quality specialist with the department.
The department sought two Strategic Implementation Areas that had different rainfall levels, cropping profiles and terrain to get an understanding of the effectiveness of different programs in Oregon's diverse range of climate and terrain, Byers said.
Stream conditions in both areas also are heavily agriculturally influenced, and show a need for improved water quality, Byers said.
The department also has identified what it is calling 43 "focus areas" where local soil and conservation districts will work with landowners on developing improvements in riparian habitat.
The Strategic Implementation Areas will be under a more regulatory microscope than the focus areas, Byers said.
In both areas, the department will conduct assessments of riparian conditions before and after the study to measure changes. The pre-assessments could start as early as August, Byers said.
The ODA is responsible for regulating agricultural water quality in the state under a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Environmental Quality, which has the state's lead role in enforcing the federal Clean Water Act.