RITZVILLE, Wash. — Eastern Washington ranchers are working to protect their ability to address potential pollution issues.

The Washington Cattlemen’s Association held a meeting for ranchers in response to letters sent to 32 landowners by the Washington Department of Ecology in late 2013 The livestock industry has criticized the letters for being too vague, indicating a water pollution problem was observed but not giving enough details about the problem.

The Livestock Water Quality Group put together a packet for ranchers who receive a letter, including a response letter asking Ecology to indicate specifically where pollution occurred.

“For an individual who’s got multiple parcels, you don’t even know which parcel of land they’re talking about,” said Connell, Wash., attorney Toni Meacham, executive director of the Washington Agriculture Legal Foundation. “It is absolutely imperative that when you get a letter from Ecology, you ask for the evidence. You have to find out why they’re coming after you.”

Meacham said Ecology is getting around state laws set up for the protection of ranchers. The department is required to mitigate if an action will take land out of agricultural production, but ecology sends threatening letters indicating ranchers need to work through their conservation district to make changes, she said.

“They say they don’t have to do that because there’s no order,” she said.

State law also requires Ecology insure sufficient in-stream flows to water cattle. Ecology claims that doesn’t mean ranchers have the right to allow cattle direct access to the water to drink, Meacham said.

“Anybody who just is looking at the rule would think, ‘That means I can water my cattle out of this waterway,’” she said.

Meacham hopes to strengthen state laws or change them in order to offer ranchers more protection. That may mean a change in the language of the law or using science to show the benefits of agriculture.

“We have to do it in such a way that it works for everybody, not just agriculture - otherwise, it’s not going to pass,” she said.

One photo taken by Ecology to show pollution on a piece of property doesn’t provide context or the history of the land, said Tip Hudson, regional rangeland and livestock specialist for Washington State University Extension, based in Ellensburg, Wash.

He recommends ranchers take pictures of their property at the same location over time to show how their management efforts have enhanced the land. Photos would help the farmer provide a record if Ecology points out a violation.

“If somebody has been improving a site for the last 10 years, but we don’t quite like the way it looks yet, should we penalize that person for making improvements?” he asked.

Hudson also recommends working to protect or improve vegetation on land near water bodies.

When grazing is done well, it has the potential to improve the land even more than without the presence of cattle, he said.

“On the flip side, if we do grazing poorly, it’s definitely worse than neutral,” he said.

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington State Cattlemen’s Association, hoped ranchers would take the opportunity to assess their own land for pollution risks. If they have questions, there’s a network of support in the industry, he said.

“If you take actions before Ecology sends you the letter, you’re the one writing the plan and driving the car,” he said. “When it becomes Ecology in a regulatory action, they’re dictating to the landowner and it becomes a more restrictive process. We want to make sure landowners have got all the tools available, all the flexibility.”

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