ODA Gets More Strategic With Agricultural Water Quality

After testing out a new, strategic approach to improving water quality in targeted watersheds of Wasco and Clackamas counties, the Oregon Department of Agriculture is ready to expand the effort to seven new areas around the state, each receiving direct outreach and education as part of the plan to address priority water quality concerns. If the new strategic implementation areas are as successful as the test areas, nearly 100 percent of these small watersheds will be in compliance with ODA’s water quality rules.
 
“A regulatory program alone will not achieve the state’s water quality needs,” says Ray Jaindl, ODA’s Director of Natural Resource Programs. “We don’t have sufficient resources to implement a regulatory program for all landowners. We need the outreach and education to accomplish our goals. That’s why this strategic initiative is such an important step in the evolution of our program.”
 
Under ODA’s program, plans and rules have been adopted for 38 basins statewide which determine how agriculture deals with water quality problems– issues such as erosion, siltation, animal waste management, and riparian area management. Plans provide flexibility so landowners can develop their own approaches to local water quality problems. The plans do not emphasize enforcement as a primary method for assuring success, although compliance is an important component of the program.
 
With input from agricultural and environmental groups, as well as the State Board of Agriculture, the program was taken to the next level. In addition to the longstanding complaint-driven process to identify problems and take corrective action, a more proactive approach was adopted that concentrates technical and financial resources into smaller, specific geographic areas. That led to pilot projects initiated two years ago on Noyer Creek in Clackamas County and Mill Creek in Wasco County.
 
“The test areas were exceedingly successful to such an extent that, in most cases, we have not had to take regulatory action with landowners in those watersheds,” says John Byers, manager of ODA’s Agricultural Water Quality Program. “This approach provides us a very strong vehicle for outreach. We reach every single agricultural operator within that watershed. It also provides them technical assistance on the ground if they are, in fact, not in compliance.”
 
Small watersheds have been identified as strategic implementation areas in Clatsop, Columbia, Polk, Yamhill, Jackson, Deschutes, and Multnomah counties. Wasco County is targeting a new watershed as part of this year’s effort. The initiative deals only with agricultural landowners and usually covers anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 acres in each watershed.
 
The new approach includes a pre-evaluation, outreach, technical assistance, on-the-ground projects, enforcement if necessary, and a post-evaluation. At the conclusion of the process, ODA and its partners hope to be able to tell the story of how agriculture is taking action to protect water quality and correct problems that may exist.
 
“We now, systematically and strategically, identify the areas of the state where we need to do the work, we now are able to quantify the work that has been done, and we now systematically ensure compliance with water quality rules in these small watersheds,” says Byers.
 
ODA needed to show results and strategically focus on areas with the greatest needs while dealing with limited capacity. Quantifying work that landowners have done to improve water quality is especially important.
 
“Through this process, we hope to show that agricultural producers are already doing great things to address water quality concerns and implement actions to improve water quality in other areas, which would benefit both agricultural producers and the public,” says ODA water quality compliance leader Kevin Fenn.
 
ODA’s Agricultural Water Quality Program continues to rely on partnerships. Under the strategic initiative, ODA does the outreach, soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) and watershed councils provide on-the-ground technical assistance. Using publicly available information to assess conditions of agricultural lands in these small watersheds, ODA is able to identify activities that may be impeding water quality. In those cases, if the problems are confirmed, the landowners are notified. Working with the SWCDs and watershed councils, those landowners can fix the problems, be in compliance, and be checked off the list without ODA needing to take regulatory action. That’s how it worked in the test areas. That’s how it hopefully will work in the expanded strategic initiative areas.
 
“A good example is a manure pile right next to a stream that we can see from an aerial photograph,” says Byers. “That results in specific outreach to the property owner. If we confirm it as a problem, the district or watershed council works the landowner to mitigate the problem– in this case, removing the pile, covering it, or changing management practices.”
 
Districts and watershed councils can help landowners achieve compliance but they don’t have an enforcement or regulatory role. That responsibility remains with ODA. If the track record of the test areas holds true in the seven new areas, ODA will not need to take that step very often, if at all.
 
The 2015 Oregon Legislature provided funding for three new positions in ODA to move forward with the strategic initiative. Funds are also being made available to help SWCDs and watershed councils provide technical assistance. In addition to the seven new strategic implementation areas this year, up to six more will be added in 2016, the sites yet to be determined.
 
This new approach has wide approval, not the least of which comes from the ODA staff itself.
 
“Four years ago, when I came to work each day, I didn’t always feel like we had all the tools necessary to make a difference,” says Fenn. “Now I feel we do. The strategic initiative has improved our ability to identify and address specific concerns and make sure that water quality is protected.”
 
For more information, contact John Byers at (503) 986-4718.