Water rules loom
Wheat group praises NRCS for working with growers
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Washington Association of Wheat Growers President Eric Maier says discussions at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service appear to be moving toward a one-size-fits-all Clean Water Act regulation.
"We're very concerned about a possible mandate coming down the road, and we want to make sure we're at the table talking about this, so producers are well-represented," he said.
The directors of the Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Agriculture and the Washington Conservation Commission have been meeting to coordinate voluntary and regulatory programs. The directors will provide an update on their meetings at a joint legislative hearing between the state Senate and House agricultural committees Nov. 29.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked for legislation to address nutrients that cause water pollution, but Ecology does not expect that to impact wheat producers.
Ecology special assistant to the director Josh Baldi said the department was surprised to hear of the wheat growers' concerns, since those efforts are focused on animal waste management. Fertilizers could possibly be included, but it's not likely, he said.
WAWG is concerned that Ecology intends to put a priority on immediate regulatory actions over voluntary incentives when implementing the federal Clean Water and Clean Air laws.
The group will speak with NRCS Chief Dave White in January and has been speaking with national wheat representatives to express their concerns. The situation in Washington could serve as a precedent for others in the nation, they say.
Regulations and mandates have a tendency to be unrealistic for the business, Paterson, Wash., farmer and WAWG secretary-treasurer Nicole Berg said.
"Any time a mandate, law or rule comes out, all of a sudden we feel like no one talks to us about it," she said.
WAWG would prefer agencies like Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency follow the example of the NRCS. They feel the conservation service uses a voluntary approach and follows science and stakeholder input.
Ecology water quality section manager Melissa Gildersleeve said the department supports incentive-based and voluntary programs, but providing a regulatory backstop is an important part of Ecology's responsibility.
Berg said farmers have already been putting in the work to address pollution.
"We may not get credit for it because we don't tell anybody, we just kind of do it," she said. "Do we need to tell our story better to the public and agencies, or are they setting goals for us that are way too high and unreasonable?"
A voluntary program would be the best way to facilitate any changes, Maier said.
"Anybody that's still in production agriculture now is doing so because they've been successful at it," he said. "They are good stewards of the land and they are sustainable. Those guys that aren't doing it that way just aren't here anymore."
The NRCS is in the process of revising its 590 Nutrient Management standard. According to WAWG, revisions to the standard will affect guidelines and best management practices for future conservation program participants and the rules they must follow. The NRCS standard will also serve as precedent for EPA and Ecology. The Environmental Protection Agency implements the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts nationwide. In Washington, the state Department of Ecology regulates nonpoint source pollution.
Most agriculture practices are considered nonpoint sources because they are not directly depositing pollutants into waters.
Ecology water quality section manager Melissa Gildersleeve said NRCS is asking whether the updated practices meet clean water standards.