Water quality program 'becomes regulatory if there is a problem'
By MITCH LIES
Oregon's agricultural water quality program has come under fire recently for being too lax. One common criticism raised by critics is that the program is voluntary.
That allows bad actors to avoid complying with water quality regulations, critics say.
But Oregon Department of Agriculture officials said the program is voluntary only to a degree.
"Bottom line, the ag water quality program is a regulatory program," said Katy Coba, director of the ODA.
The ODA regulates agricultural water quality in Oregon under a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Environmental Quality.
The 15-year-old agreement is under review and officials anticipate renewing it 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 in operation.
While the plans' emphasis is on voluntary actions, Coba said, the department can, and has, used its regulatory stick to bring producers in compliance with the state's agricultural water quality management law.
"The emphasis is on voluntary actions, on partnering with soil and water conservation districts, with (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, Jaindl said. The department is considering taking a more aggressive role in uncovering potential sources of water pollution.