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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Navigating water management plans

Navigating water management plans

Agricultural producers on the Powder River will learn from their Burnt River colleagues and others as they assemble a water quality plan. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Agricultural producers on the Powder River will learn from their Burnt River colleagues and others as they assemble a water quality plan. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Bridgeport rancher Lynn Shumway put an extra 15,000 miles on his vehicle mostly back and forth to Salem and members of his 12-man committee admittedly faced a lot of frustration during the initial stages.

But now that the Burnt River Local Advisory Committee has completed the task of crafting a draft plan that will manage agricultural water quality within the 1,100 square miles of the river basin, theyre willing to help their friends around the Powder-Brownlee basin as they begin the arduous task of writing their own plan.

Under a 1993 act by the Oregon Legislature and in response to Congress landmark 1973 Clean Water Act agricultural producers are required to form Local Advisory Committees and develop plans to reduce water pollution from agricultural sources and to improve overall conditions within each of the states 39 watersheds.

That task was not as difficult as it may seem for Burnt River producers, committee co-chairman Shumway said, because of two earlier water quality studies of the Burnt undertaken among 14 federal, state and local agencies. Those studies, he said, indicated that it was natural climatological conditions that caused elevated stream and river temperatures, and not agricultural practices.

I dont think this new plan will change a lot what were doing out here in the Burnt River, Shumway said. We have a very thorough monitoring system on the river, and were constantly checking water quality. Because weve been so active on the front end, theres not a lot that will change because of the plan.

While the plan outlines a nine-step process by which civil penalties may be levied against producers who have a negative impact on water quality, the emphasis is on education and cooperation, Shumway said.

Farmers and ranchers within the plan area will now be able to request assistance to determine what they can do to meet the plans three objectives: keeping stream bank erosion within expected levels, maintaining or improving riparian vegetation, and continuing or expanding, if necessary, the current monitoring program.

The worst thing about this whole process is that it has caused a lot of landowners to think of the Department of Agriculture (which will write the administrative rules to implement each plan) as an adversary, not an ally, Shumway said. In our plan, we tried to take any kind of adversarial language out of it.

Its a locally-driven solution to a locally-driven problem, said Ken Diebel, Regional Water Quality Planner for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The Burnt River process went fairly smoothly. In the beginning of the process, we typically see much consternation as people struggle to clarify the issues. But we like it when a lot of people get involved, because we want them to be as comfortable as possible with their plan.

The Burnt River plan has been turned over to the Baker County Empowerment Committee and the Powder-Brownlee group for peer review. It must receive approval from county commissioners before being sent on to its ultimate destination: the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

At loggerheads

While the people that wrote the Burnt River plan are putting the wraps on their work, the 12 members of the Powder-Brownlee committee have been at loggerheads with the Oregon Department of Agriculture the past two years trying to form their committee, according to Curt Martin of Powder Valley, who will serve as co-chairman of the committee along with Baker County Commissioner Tim Kerns.

That Local Advisory Committee still must be approved by the DOAs director, Phil Ward, Martin said. That approval appears to be a formality, he said.

The group had its first official meeting last month, but is still waiting for a fish biologist to be named to round out the committee, Martin said.

This is a public process and its locally driven, so we want to make sure we represent what the people in the watershed want to happen, Martin said.

Like the Burnt River committee, the Powder-Brownlee group hopes to have a plan ready within a year.

In the summer when were irrigating, its going to be pretty tough to meet as often as wed like, Martin said. But even when we dont meet, we can exchange e-mail and correspondence. Then, during fall and winter, well take a page out of the Burnt River process and intensify to once-a-week meetings until were done.

Having waited until theyre one of the last groups to devise a plan, the Powder-Brownlee LAC can take advantage of the work thats been done before.

We can take ideas from other watersheds, pull from them what we like, and pattern what we like to our area, Martin said.

The trick, he said, will be to come up with a document that indicates area producers are taking their responsibilities as land and water stewards seriously without disrupting their way of life.

We need a document that is not harmful to our culture, and yet one that addresses any impact we are having on agricultural waters, he said. We have to prove we are doing everything in our control to make things better.

Even this early in the process, Powder-Brownlee area farmers and ranchers are paying closer attention to whats going on in Salem and even Washington, D.C., Martin said.

Too many times we have ignored whats gone on in the legislature, and then faced the consequences down the road, Martin said. This document will protect us from outside entities saying, You guys have done nothing to recognize what impact youve had.

Martin said hes clear on what the plan will address and what it wont address.

We are addressing only ag-related problems and not trying to heal the whole watershed, he said. We are not going to solve the problems we didnt create.

Like the 12 people who wrote the Burnt River plan, Martins group will recognize the improvements that have already been put in place, including stream fencing and off-channel watering for cattle.

For those who have already accomplished these improvements, lets give credit where credit is due, he said, adding that some of the staff time that will go into drafting the plan will be used to research funding sources for riparian and erosion-control enhancements.

Of course, if the Powder-Brownlee group gets mired down during the long process, it can adopt another strategy that the Burnt River group found successful: establish a friendship with ODA director Ward himself.

Phil was deputy director when we first started contacting him, Shumway said, but hed become director when it was time to write the plan. Id get frustrated with the people working out in the field, so Id go straight to the director and wed get on with it.

Somebody had to help lead the committee, and I guess Id do it again. Somebody needs to represent agriculture who will step up and not be pushed around.

 
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