It was a mixed agenda at the most recent meeting of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (Ecology) Agriculture and Water Quality Advisory Committee in Airway Heights at the end of March. Topics discussed ranged from frivolous complaints and nonpoint pollution plan funding to Ecology’s intent to send warning letters to some southeast Washington producers.
Kelly Susewind, Ecology special assistant, brought the advisory committee up to speed on the status of the department’s 2013 and 2015 watershed assessments in southeast Washington. He explained that those assessments identified 50 producers whose practices were contributing to water quality issues. Out of those 50, five producers have fixed the problems, while an equal number have indicated they are working on their issue(s). But the rest, Susewind said, have not responded to the department, and the water quality issues are still present. All those farms have received at least two letters, and in some cases, five or six letters have been sent, all with no response.
“For those producers we haven’t heard from and we still see problems, we are at the point were we need to ratchet it up,” he said. “It will be back at the level of a warning letter. To have any credibility, I think we are at that point. This isn’t a penalty yet. This is the precursor.”
For those producers who have fixed the issues, Ecology will be sending letters acknowledging the work and thanking them. Those producers who are still working on their issues will also be acknowledged, but Susewind said Ecology needs to see them taking action.
The advisory committee was formed nearly two years ago, partially in response to the outcry from those watershed assessments, and includes representation from the state’s agricultural community, the environmental community and other stakeholders. The ag group works with Ecology to address water quality rules and regulation and how they affect agriculture. Washington Association of Wheat Growers Natural Resource Chair Nicole Berg has been part of the committee from the beginning and said she appreciates the outreach efforts by Ecology.
“The group has been able to advise Ecology on how its processes and rules affect the agricultural industry in Washington. We’ve advocated for a more transparent process when dealing with water quality regulations, and I think Maia (Ecology Director Maia Bellon) has made a sincere effort to listen to us,” Berg said.
Section 319 nonpoint pollution plan funding
Ben Rau, Ecology’s nonpoint pollution program coordinator, gave a presentation on drafting a plan for landowners to use to qualify for section 319 clean water nonpoint pollution funds from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That money is available for voluntary projects that benefit water quality. The EPA rejected part of Ecology’s original plan that dealt with agricultural practices, and if Ecology doesn’t amend its plan, it stands to lose that funding, which amounts to several million dollars per year.
Rau said Ecology will be working with growers, stakeholders, state and federal governments, tribes and other interested parties to identify current best management practices, or BMPs, that meet EPA’s requirements and comply with state water quality standards. Both he and Bellon emphasized that this is a voluntary program. The goal, Rau said, was to give landowners the flexibility to choose which approaches work best in their situation.
“We aren’t looking at this as a process to develop any new BMPs,” Rau explained. “We recognize there is good guidance already out there. This is about taking advantage of those current guidelines and then making sure that we are packaging them in a way that leads to the requirements set by the EPA.”
Ecology hopes to have a draft plan released by late summer/early fall with the process finalized by the end of the year.
How Ecology deals with frivolous complaints was another topic on the agenda. Some committee members expressed concern that complaints, especially anonymous ones, were being used as a tool between warring neighbors and asked Bellon how her department identified and dealt with frivolous complaints. She said her employees use a baseline of best practices and risk assessment models when dealing with them and are pretty smart in identifying when a complaint is being used as part of a feud. She also shared her perspective on shutting down anonymous complaints.
“I don’t think it is the right public policy. I don’t want to have a chilling effect on people that care about the environment, that care about our shared water,” she said. “What I want to commit to you, though, is that if there are frivolous complaints or things that are problematic, that my folks feel comfortable resolving those and bringing closure to those landowners.”
NRCS Tech Note 14
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist Roylene Rides at the Door and Rachel Maggi, NRCS West Area biologist, gave an update on the recently revised NRCS Tech Note 14, which deals with wildlife habitat buffers. The updated tech note calls for a habitat buffer to be at least 50 feet wide across 70 percent of the length of the planning unit. The previous tech note called for a minimum buffer of 35 feet. An NRCS tech note is used for guidance and planning by NRCS staff when doing an assessment and is not a standard.
The committee also heard an update on Ecology’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit process. Ecology has been rewriting the rules and expects to have a draft available for review in late spring.
The next scheduled meeting of the Ag and Water Quality Advisory Committee is schedule for June 15 at Ecology headquarters in Lacey, Wash.