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Oregon is getting better at identifying and rectifying water quality problems but conditions are still far from “rainbows and unicorns,” according to the state’s top environmental regulators.
Traditionally, Oregon has implemented projects aimed at improving water quality without sufficiently monitoring how those efforts were working, said Richard Whitman, director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Over the past five years or so, however, the state’s approach to preventing “non-point” pollution from agriculture has strengthened the government’s ability to analyze on-the-ground data over time, he said.
“Without that, we’re flying blind,” Whitman said. “We haven’t had that historically in Oregon until recently.”
Officials from DEQ and members of the Environmental Quality Commission — which oversees the agency — recently toured streams near The Dalles that had garnered additional scrutiny under the state’s agricultural water quality program.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture is charged with enforcing the agricultural water quality program but DEQ sets the standards for water quality and reviews conditions.
“We are the regulatory function and they are the science function,” said John Byers, manager of ODA’s agricultural water quality program. “We work in tandem.”
According to DEQ’s most recent water quality index for Oregon’s rivers, about 49 percent of sites were “excellent or good,” 18 percent were “fair” and 33 percent were “poor or very poor.”
In 2017, about 34 percent of sites were considered to be “improving,” 8 percent were “declining” and the rest showed no trend. To compare, 24 percent were improving and 6 percent were declining in 2016.
Forests had the largest proportion of good and excellent sites, at about 75 percent, and the smallest proportion of poor and very poor sites, at less than 10 percent.
More than 40 percent of the river sites in cities were of “very poor” water quality, the highest level of any other land use.
“Urban areas, as we might suspect, have some of the worst water quality problems in the state,” said Whitman.
Roughly 25 percent of the river sites on agricultural lands were rated “very poor” and 35 percent were rated “poor.” About 30 percent were considered “good” or “excellent,” while remaining sites on farmland were “fair.”
Since 2013, the ODA has focused on water quality in “strategic implementation areas” in which the agency relies on aerial photos and other data to find problems, rather than depend solely on complaints.
Wasco County has had three SIAs in Mill Creek, Threemile Creek and Eightmile Creek, partly because the county’s soil and water conservation district was eager to participate in the new approach. Byers said.
“Initially, it seemed a little scary to invite the regulators in,” said Shilah Olson, district manager of the Wasco SWCD.
Landowners identified as having water quality problems have sought help from local soil and water conservation districts without ODA having to issue penalties, said Byers.
“It’s not about enforcement, it’s about compliance,” he said.
Mary Sandoz, a farmer near The Dalles, built a roof over a hog pen to prevent runoff into nearby Mill Creek as part of the SIA program.
Because they were in one of the earliest SIAs, farmers near the waterway wanted to set a good precedent, she said.
“Are we being made an example of? Because that’s almost what it felt like,” Sandoz said.
Once landowners meet with ODA and learn about the SIA process, their concerns are usually dispelled, Byers said.
At the end of those meetings, farmers are asked, “Does this scare you?” he said. “Typically the answer is no.”