ODA defends water quality program
Agency steps up efforts to monitor rivers in state
By MITCH LIES
McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- Since 2004, Tom and Barbara Boyer have planted 10,000 trees on their farm along the South Yamhill River to reduce erosion and provide shade.
Efforts like theirs are not unusual, Barbara Boyer said. But outside the community, few know the work is occurring.
"There is a lot of this going on," Boyer said. "It's just not getting documented."
With the Oregon Department of Agriculture's water quality program coming under fire in recent months, ODA officials hope to bring to light projects like the Boyers'.
The ODA regulates agricultural water quality in Oregon under a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ administers water quality in Oregon under an arrangement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
U.S. District Judge John Acosta recently criticized EPA for lax oversight of the state's agricultural water quality program.
The 15-year-old agreement between the ODA and DEQ is also under review. Officials anticipate renewing the arrangement in the next few weeks to better reflect the current state of affairs, said Ray Jaindl, administrator of ODA's natural resources division.
When the original agreement was signed, ODA was just starting to develop water quality plans for 38 water basins, Jaindl said. Today, the plans are complete and in effect.
The agreement between DEQ and ODA was discussed at length in the 2011 Legislature, which set up a task force analyzing it.
The Legislature also gave the ODA $500,000 in its 2011-13 budget to step up monitoring in its water-quality program. The department has added personnel to document changes in streamside vegetation, and it has increased the number of water-quality monitoring sites from 42 to 61. The sites are manned by the Department of Environmental Quality.
ODA officials said they believe the state is doing a good job of regulating agricultural water quality and hope the increased documentation deflects criticism and provides evidence backing their stance.
"There is clearly a difference of opinion about how effective the program is," said Katy Coba, director of the ODA. "We believe the program is very effective ... but we've got to be able to show how effective the program is, and it is not happening now."
But critics are not satisfied.
"There are no river protections -- voluntary or mandatory -- to bring landowners even close to minimizing their impacts on stream temperatures," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, in a recent newspaper commentary. "Agricultural activities get a virtual free pass from the Oregon Department of Agriculture; the DEQ is nowhere to be seen."
Department of Agriculture officials disagree.
"Some people would argue that our rules are not robust enough," Jaindl said. "I would disagree with that, because (the rules) provide that pollution does not occur.
"Do we have sufficient resources to be going out there and be more aggressive about it? No," he said. "But that is true for any government program. But, are we more successful because we do more of the outreach and education rather than just focus on compliance? I think we are."
The voluntary nature of the program, which is administered under regional agricultural water quality plans known as Senate Bill 1010 plans, is one key to its success, Coba said.
But, Coba said, the program is voluntary only to a degree.
"Bottom line, the ag water quality program is a regulatory program," Coba said.
"The emphasis is on voluntary actions, on partnering with soil and water conservation districts, with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), watershed councils and on reaching out to landowners and saying, 'You've got a problem or a potential for a problem. We can help you access resources, but we would like you to voluntarily move forward and make some changes in the way you manage so that you are addressing the problem,'" Coba said.
"The other thing the 'voluntary' term addresses is there are not specific requirements for what you must do on your property. There are none of those prescriptive-type things," Coba said. "There is a suite of tools, and you as a landowner can pick and choose what you think will work best for your land, your crop.
"But," Coba said, "it becomes regulatory if there is a problem ... and the landowner doesn't want to deal with the problem."
In the vast majority of instances, landowners respond when the department approaches, Jaindl said. Of 400 compliance actions since 2000, only three resulted in civil penalties, he said.
"It may have taken two or three times to contact some of these people," Jaindl said. "But we can usually get their attention."
The department learns of potential problems primarily through complaints, but that could change in the future, Jaindl said. The department is considering taking a more aggressive role in uncovering potential sources of water pollution.
Barbara Boyer, who recently joined the State Board of Agriculture as the new chair of the Oregon Soil and Water Conservation Commission, is improving stream health on her farm under contract with the USDA Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The program pays landowners to take land out of production for a set period and planting native vegetation. The Boyers signed a 15-year contract.
"We did it for the big-picture payoff," Boyer said. "For me it is the benefit of knowing we're the keepers of a newly planted riparian."
To date, there is no empirical evidence that water quality in the South Yamhill River is improving as it runs through Boyer's farm. But the Boyers believe it is.
"We've seen less silt in the river," she said. "The trees are slowing the current as it floods, so it's not taking soil away with it."