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Oregon’s Department of Agriculture Looks to Protect Waterways from Pesticide Runoff

(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.


2 Responses to “Oregon’s Department of Agriculture Looks to Protect Waterways from Pesticide Runoff”

  1. 1
    Kat Reid Says:

    Not to be a curmudgeon here, but most so-called “restoration” and “conservation” programs actually require the use of pesticides as part of their protocol for “restoring habitat”, i.e. “eradicating” non-native species/invasives so that the more “pristine” native species may grow. For those of us who have bothered to follow th emoney trail on these “invasives” and restoration grants, you’ll see that most of this newfound zeal for native plants and restoring waterways dates back to 1999 and Bill Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 13112 on Invasive Species. At first blush, the cause sounds liek it may be environmental, but a closer look reveals the truth. Do you know who petitioned CLinto (repeatedly) to sign that Executive Order (fyi-Exec Orders are not subject to COngressional Review)? Monsanto Exec-Nelroy Jackson. Clinton not only signed the Exec Order; he formed a National Invasive Species Council and put Monsanto Execs at the helm. He also allocated $1 BILLION of taxpayer money to “fight the war” on invasive species. Sound a little like overkill? It is. I challenge each of you to look behind the curtain of any restoration or “invasives” eradication effort in your neighborhood or state park. I guarantee you that you will find that a whole bunch of pesticides are being used for that program. WHy is that? Monsanto set in place a bureaucracy that ensures that grant recipients prescribe pesticide products as part of their “cost-effective” solution or else risk not being funded. Think I’m paranoid-check the facts for yourself.

  2. 2
    Beyond Pesticides Says:

    Dear Kat,
    We agree that pesticides are never the answer to problems associated with “invasive” or “non-native” species. In fact, there is a lively debate within the scientific community concerning whether or not it is appropriate to mount campaigns against these “opportunistic” species. Are these species a problem because they do not do what we want them to do? Or are they a clue and response to a disturbed ecosystem? Beyond Pesticides has a program page dedicated to “Ecological Management of Problem Vegetation” here : http://www.beyondpesticides.org/weeds/index.php. On that site we provide links to various ecological approaches to managing problem vegetation. We believe that by considering the ecosystem as a whole and maintaining and encouraging biodiversity, the resiliency of the natural environment can be strengthened against an intrusion of what we term problem vegetation. In any case, pesticides and herbicides surely pose a greater threat than the problems they are meant to solve.

    If you have any additional questions please call us at 202-543-5450, or email us at [email protected].

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