(Beyond Pesticides, October 16, 2012) The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is looking to revamp the way it enforces the 1993 Agricultural Water Quality Management Act in order to decrease the amount of pesticides that end up in the state’s waterways from agricultural nonpoint source pollution. The new plan, which was unveiled last December, will work by taking a firmer approach than the current plan, which on sporadic complaints for enforcement and cooperative action by residents through soil and water conservation districts. While a new plan could benefit the health of Oregon residents and its waterways, it is in danger because politicians and some farmers believe it will be overly burdensome and increase costs.
Oregon is no stranger to problems with pesticide contamination of its water. The state of Oregon has a complex and diverse agricultural economy which ranges from forestry products to seed crops. Oregon also has thousands of miles of waterways. Roughly 15,000 miles of these waterways are listed as impaired, and nearly half of the 11,000-plus miles of waterways in Willamette River basin need more streamside plants, according to a 2009 state report. These plants help reduce the amount of run off by reducing the amount of pesticides that can reach water-ways. Zollner creek, which runs through the flatlands below Mt. Angel Abbey in the Willamette Valley, was found to be contaminated with pesticides, including the chemical diuron, which is harmful to fish and aquatic organisms. The stream has registered high levels of pesticides and fertilizers since the mid-1990s, and contamination levels detected in the Zollner and around Oregon are high enough to cause harm to aquatic life, including native salmon and steelhead.
ODA Director Katy Coba and her staff floated the new, firmer approach to water quality late last year: The state would target limited resources to the most polluted streams, ramp up education of landowners and accelerate restoration projects, tapping state and federal subsidies. Over time, trees, shrubs and grasses would shade and cool rivers and filter pesticide and fertilizer runoff, benefiting threatened salmon runs. Before-and-after water monitoring would confirm long-term results. As a last resort, ODA would pursue uncooperative landowners, starting with warnings, instead of relying on outside complaints for enforcement. The department unveiled the proposal in December before the state’s water quality committee, including an aerial photo of the threatened Zollner watershed.
This new plan is seen as an improvement from the old system, which relied on outside complaints and cooperative landowners for improvements, leaving gaps which threatened water quality. An example of the problems this faced was last year Marion County’s soil and water conservation district decided to upgrade water quality along Zollner Creek. Conservation districts are government entities that work with landowners and operators who are willing to help them manage and protect land and water resources on all public and private land. While notices went to 75 farmers and land owners only five responded. Two eventually agreed to soil testing, and “Because of a lack of access on private land and interest by landowners,” the district reported to the state in July, “Efforts would be better spent on other projects.” The patchwork of voluntary projects, and a dearth of river data from years past, make it tough to demonstrate the results that environmentalists, federal regulators – and judges – increasingly demand.
The movement to this new system will be politically challenging for ODA because some farmers and conservation districts see the new proposal as a sign of a more active and intrusive governmental agency. In a January letter, the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts warned that farmers and ranchers might believe districts “are conspiring with ODA to set them up” for water quality violations. ODA, with just six field staff in its water quality program for 38,000 farms needs the conservation districts, which it leans on heavily for information and ground work in order to be successful.
Farmers are also concerned. John Annen, whose family has grown hops for more than a century along Zollner Creek, stated “I’m all for the clean rivers and the fish and all that — they were here before we were”¦But I don’t want somebody out here telling us what to do.” Farmers were also worried about the cost of creating stronger buffer zones. Federal and state subsidies only cover three-quarters of buffer installation, and while rent payments are supposed to address lost land value, land can range up to $12,000 an acre in the area. However, without proper action, and no matter the cost, pesticide pollution in these streams will affect the health and environment of Oregon residents.
Legislators from both parties are watching ODA closely as the proposal moves forward. If they don’t like what they see, bills to restrict or expand ODA’s authority could pop up in the Legislature next year and the future of this program may be in jeopardy after the November 6th elections.
To eradicate pesticides runoff in our waterways and our environment Beyond Pesticides supports farms that work to transition to organic methods of production. Organic food contributes to better health through reduced pesticide exposure for all and increased nutritional quality. In order to understand the importance of eating organic food from the perspective of toxic pesticide contamination, we need to look at the whole picture ””from the farmworkers who do the valuable work of growing food, to the waterways from which we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. Organic food can feed us and keep us healthy without producing the toxic effects of chemical agriculture.
It is important to make your voice heard on organic standards. See Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong webpage for more information on the issues going on right now at the fall NOSB meeting. We will be updating this webpage with our perspectives,, so be sure to check back as new information is added.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.