FAIRFIELD, Wash. — Farmers in the Hangman Creek watershed need to share their success stories with the state Department of Ecology in the face of increased scrutiny from the agency, Spokane Conservation District staffers say.
The creek is being called the most-polluted water body in the state, district water resources program manager Walt Edelen said at an April 12 informational meeting.
“It raises environmental hackles, gets people upset,” he said. “There has been a perception that maybe agriculture doesn’t really care, or they’re not really doing enough. This is what we’re dealing with.”
An environmental group, Spokane Riverkeeper, sued the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015, saying that control measures were not reducing pollution in the creek. Under a legal settlement reached in March, the state Department of Ecology will drive through the watershed in the spring and identify at least 10 priority problem sites on livestock or tillage operations.
Ecology will first make contact in April or May with a phone call, then a letter, Edelen said. Letters will be sent to landowners. A landowner could receive multiple contacts if several parcels are identified.
A farmer can meet with both Ecology and the conservation district in an effort to find a solution to a problem, he said.
“We’ve been successful in some cases, semi-successful in some cases and there have been times when Ecology has come back and said, ‘That’s not working, we want more,’” Edelen said.
The district has several voluntary programs available to growers, including Farmed Smart, available to dryland farmers through the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association. Ecology offers a “letter of safe harbor” to growers who meet the criteria of the program.
A similar Farmed Smart program for irrigated farmers is in the works, and eventually a livestock program is possible, said Ty Meyer, agriculture manager for the conservation district.
It’s not certain that Ecology would automatically offer safe harbor for those programs, Meyer said, “but we’re building a pretty robust program that producers have to meet a high standard.”
If farmers show an effort to make improvements, Ecology will likely not issue a fine or penalty, Edelen said.
During the meeting, several farmers expressed their frustration. Some told of working with the department to make changes and then still receiving warnings, or worrying that Ecology could change its requirements.
Several farmers also questioned Edelen’s appearance in a video on the Spokane Riverkeeper website. The video was filmed by Spokane River Forum, which is not connected to Spokane Riverkeeper, about various uses of the river. Edelen represented the conservation district on it. In addition to Ecology and the Riverkeeper representatives, the video includes fly fishermen and farmers.
Even if all farmers are in compliance with Ecology, the creek wouldn’t necessarily be as clear as Ecology and the Riverkeeper group desire, due to its natural sediment load, Edelen said. However, the creek has been clearing up earlier each year, he said.
Ecology also plans to hold meetings, conservation district director Vicki Carter said.
She and Edelen urged growers to calmly educate the department about their practices, share stories of successful efforts and improve the evaluation process.
“We’re frustrated, too, but communication is going to be vital, or else they’ll just shut down,” Carter said. “It can’t be a crucifixion, because they’ll just walk away. We have to be able to work with them some way.”