Agricultural water scrutiny increases in Oregon

A Reinke linear system irrigates corn in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Agricultural water quality is coming under increased scrutiny among regulators and environmentalists in Oregon, worrying farm advocates.

Growing scrutiny of agricultural water quality in Oregon is worrying farm advocates who fear a more heavy-handed government role in directing landowner pollution control efforts.

Agricultural water quality was discussed at the two most recent quarterly meetings of Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission, which oversees the Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s chief environmental regulator.

While DEQ is the main agency charged with implementing the federal Clean Water Act in Oregon, it’s the Oregon Department of Agriculture that actually enforces water regulations on farmland.

Officials with DEQ recently showcased mapping tools that display where “designated management agencies” — including ODA, the Oregon Department of Forestry and local governments — have jurisdiction over watersheds with pollution problems.

The tool can help regulators visualize the potential source of pollution, such as bacteria from pasture runoff, to enlist the appropriate regulators for outreach and enforcement.

When using such tools, the DEQ needs to be careful to avoid a “big brother feel,” said Greg Addington, executive director of the Resource Education and Agricultural Leadership Oregon program and EQC’s newest member.

“A lot of this can be scary for landowners,” he said.

Richard Whitman, DEQ’s director, responded that regulators are simply refining their methods to understand what’s happening on the ground and why, but the data isn’t intended to directly impose conditions on landowners.

“Much of this is not necessarily going to be done through regulation,” Whitman said.

However, environmental groups are pressing DEQ to step up its enforcement of “nonpoint” sources of pollution, such as agriculture.

For example, the Trout Unlimited nonprofit has complained that management plans for agricultural water quality don’t reflect the best science and don’t sufficiently measure whether progress is being made.

The criticism prompted several farmers and agriculture advocates to defend the state’s current approach during the EQC’s most recent meeting in Portland, where they argued the compliance program should remain flexible and outcome-oriented instead of dictating practices to landowners.

Over time, the focus on water quality among regulators and environmentalists has progressed from point sources of pollution — such as factories — to forestry and now agriculture, said Mary Anne Cooper, general counsel for public policy with the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Farm advocates need to proactively address those concerns, such as with DEQ’s ongoing revision of the water quality standard for mercury in the Willamette River basin, she said.

The agency is racing to change that standard, known as the total maximum daily load or TMDL, by next April to comply with a federal court order.

During a recent meeting on the matter in Keizer, Cooper and other natural resource industry representatives objected to a DEQ “brainstorming session” about possible “best management practices” for managing mercury pollution from soil erosion.

Officials with DEQ said the suggestions would simply help the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Forestry with their compliance programs.

However, industry representatives fear the discussion may signal DEQ will try to bypass local advisory committees on water quality and dictate how ODA and ODF should do their jobs.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s supposed to be locally driven,” said Cooper.

Oregon’s existing system for regulating erosion from agriculture and forestry is already effective but isn’t adequately funded, said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

There’s broad support for ODA’s agricultural water quality program among growers, who want to reduce erosion, he said. “No ag operation wants to lose their soil.”

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