Washington Ecology starts inquiry into best farm practices

Dairies will be among the focuses of a Washington Department of Ecology work group considering best-management practices for the state's farms and ranches.

A long-planned look at the best ways Washington farmers and ranchers can prevent water pollution has been begun by the Department of Ecology.

The review was triggered by criticism from the Environmental Protection Agency that the state’s plan to control agricultural runoff was too vague. In response, Ecology has formed a 26-member committee that includes farm groups, environmental organizations, tribes and conservation districts.

Ecology says the committee will look at 12 broad categories — such as storing manure or planting stream buffers — to identify pollution-control measures that are effective, practical and voluntary.

The Farm Bureau’s representative on the committee, Evan Sheffels, the group’s water-policy expert, said the exercise might benefit farmers by making Ecology more flexible in funding on-farm, pollution-control projects.

Nevertheless, he said he remains leery that what will start as voluntary guidelines will someday be held up as mandatory measures.

“Am I being paranoid? Maybe,” he said. “We’re hoping this is about science and what the farm can implement, and it doesn’t get political.”

The review stems from a plan Ecology presented to the EPA in 2015. The plan makes Ecology eligible to receive federal funds to protect water. While approving the plan, EPA said Ecology should “describe a process for engaging stakeholders” to develop “best-management practices.”

Separately, Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates in 2016 sued the EPA, alleging it should cut off federal funds until Ecology implements best-management practices. The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court for Western Washington.

Ecology has tackled the EPA-assigned task cautiously. It spent more than a year planning how to proceed. A consultant reported that producers were worried the practices that emerged would be onerous, uneconomical and de facto regulations. Environmentalists said they were frustrated by the pace of identifying the practices.

The committee that has emerged from that planning has met twice.

Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon, who’s on the committee, credited Ecology with good intentions.

“I am feeling much more comfortable,” he said. “I am hopeful and optimistic.”

Washington Cattle Feeders Association Executive Director Jack Field, also on the committee, said he too was sanguine about how the effort was shaping up.

“I think we have a good chance of having a positive outcome out of this process,” Field said.

The committee will split into two work groups for meetings over the summer.

One group, largely made up of scientists, will evaluate which pollution-control methods are most effective. A second group, which includes farmers and environmentalists, will consider whether the methods are practical.

Natural Resource Conservation Service standards will figure in the talks, but the work groups will look at other standards, too.

The work groups will begin with two categories: soil stabilization and sediment capture, and tillage and residue management. Reviewing those two topics may take the rest of the year, according to Ecology.

Categories on deck include controlling pollutants from livestock in pastures and when confined, and protecting streams with buffers. Ecology has no timetable for working through the 12 categories.

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