Next year the Oregon Department of Agriculture will change its water quality enforcement process in Grant County from a complaint-based approach to an active review of any property conditions that might lead to a lack of compliance with the state’s agricultural water quality standards.
The ODA, the lead agency for regulating agricultural concerning water quality under the Agricultural Water Quality Management Act, has the authority to enforce administrative rules, and these rules apply to private property owners whose land is used for agricultural purposes.
Kyle Sullivan, district manager of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, said since 2003, enforcement of water quality concerns has been complaint driven. Now, he said, ODA is implementing an alternative, known as the Strategic Implementation Area process.
ODA Director of Communications Andrea Cantu-Schomus said the agency has already implemented the process elsewhere in the state and is not proposing anything different for Grant County.
"The SIA process is new to Grant County, but ... ODA and our partners have been implementing this same process in other areas of the state for several years," she said in an email Feb. 26.
Sullivan said the Strategic Implementation Area program selects specific watersheds within Grant County and will conduct field evaluations that use remote imagery to identify manure piles, bare ground or other potential hazards from farming operations.
ODA will consider the presence of livestock, cropping and other agricultural operations and how close they are to bodies of water. The type of stream, field slope and other factors will be considered when identifying potential water quality concerns.
Strategic Implementation Areas are selected based on the ODA’s statewide prioritization of watersheds near agricultural lands. This includes parameters of water quality, temperature, bacteria, nutrients and sediment. The criteria also takes into account Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s priorities for native fish recovery and input from stakeholders.
Soil and water conservation district board members said their input has not been taken into consideration by ODA.
“They made this plan without consulting the stakeholders, the landowners,” board member Pat Voigt said.
Board member Roger Ediger said, when the legislation was passed in 1993 to monitor water quality, the board worked closely with ODA. He said today that is not the case, and interest groups, along with DEQ, pressured the ODA to take an aggressive stance on water quality enforcement.
Ediger said the new approach will alienate private landowners from the conservation district and turn the district into regulators.
“We are not going to be the regulators,” he said. “We are here to help people come into compliance.”
Sullivan said the new approach is not grounded in the spirit in which the water quality legislation was written.
“It was always known there was going to be a regulatory mechanism, but there was always a desire that this is not always a top-down directed program, but also a little bit from the bottom-up as well, and I question whether or not that has been lost,” he said.
On March 5 private landowners will have their opportunity to learn more about the program and share their thoughts and concerns.
ODA Strategic Implementation Area Program Lead Brenda Sanchez will be the guest speaker at the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District annual meeting at 6 p.m. March 5 at the Grant County Municipal Airport.
Sanchez said one good thing about the program is that ODA is on a long-term schedule with the SIAs, which is being implemented statewide.
“We’re in all areas of the state, and we are here to tell ag’s story,” Sanchez said.