DOE Agriculture and Water Quality Advisory Committee meeting September 11, 2014

The DOE Advisory Group continues to meet. This time we were able to meet in Ritzville, which makes a much easier drive for those of us in Eastern Washington. The next meeting, which will be in October, will be in Lacey. All meetings are from 1-4 for anyone that wants to attend.

The focus of this meeting were voluntary measures and the progress towards clean water that voluntary programs have accomplished.

The first one, Voluntary Stewardship Programs (VSP), are on many people’s minds with the bill that was passed in Washington which allows for VSP if funding can be found. The Conservation Commission will be asking for $7.5 million dollars to fund VSP from the capitol budget in the next session. If funding is not available by July 31, 2015, Counties without funding will not be allowed into VSP. Currently 28 counties have opted in for VSP programs, but only 2 counties, Chelan and Thurston have been funded. The purpose of VSP is to protect critical areas. VSP allows for collaborative stewardship planning between Counties, stakeholders, and other government entities. Once VSP is funded, Counties will be required to come up with a work plan within the watershed group. Improved compliance with laws leads to improved water quality. Although VSP was not passed to specifically address water quality, water quality improvement is an added benefit to the VSP program. DOE supports VSP.

The Direct Seed group also presented on their certification program which is called the Farmed Smart Certification. This program was developed to address water quality issues in farming practices. The Direct Seed group has criteria to become certified and is working with DOE on this program. Once in the program, there will be third party certification and audits to confirm compliance. Buffer strips will be required eventually and in this program, at least at this time, no grazing is allowed on the buffer strips.

For many years Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) or Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) have been used between DOE and different groups, such as Conservation Districts, in an effort to assist with water quality. DOE and the Conservation Districts signed an MOU in approximately 1990 which helped to define rolls. MOU’s are hard with diversity in Washington and DOE does not think a general MOU concerning water quality will work to rectify all water quality issues in Washington.

The Conservation Commission presented on Ecosystem Markets for ag lands. In this scenario, for the market to be successful, a value is applied to various ecosystem functions, such as wetland, forests, habitat, etc. Value is then converted to credits which can be sold in the marketplace. Buyers can be private or public sector . These buyers are mitigating the impacts of their actions by buying up credits from a business or individual that has gone beyond the threshold for conservation practices. The example given at the meeting was if Walmart wanted to put a store in a wetland, then they would have to buy wetland credits from someone with those credits.  The goal of the conservation market program is to provide a source of revenue for working farms and forest landowners. The property owner has a bundle of property rights and ecosystem values that can equate to credits. The higher value is in the multi-credit bundles such as one bundle which contains aquatic habitat, carbon, wetlands, nitrogren, and terrestrial habitat. Oregon has a focus on conservation markets. This is what the carbon credit idea is based on.

Our last presentation was on effective voluntary incentive based programs such as through the conservation districts. These programs have been working for over 70 years to help ag producers and landowners make land and water quality decisions. Examples of these programs include: Fish passage barrier removal, irrigation efficiency programs, riparian forest buffer programs (CREP), and wetland enhancement/restoration. The benefits of these programs include increased irrigation efficiency, fish, wildlife, and bird habitat, and increased water quality. Landowners are able to work with the Conservation Districts, allowing them to save money, time, and energy. The Conservation Districts have the tools to bring in the project managers and work to make the projects run smoothly for the landowners.

This meeting did not allow for debate or conversation, and was  more of an informative meeting. The advisory group felt it was necessary to present to DOE the success stories that we have in agriculture. Our story is one of stewardship and perseverance. Those of us involved in farming and ranching are not taking the easy route and are not in it for the fast buck.  We are in for the long haul and it is time that we show the world the care we give to our land that allows it to produce and perform. Taking care of the land and livestock is what we in agriculture do best, and learning new ways to do that is important. However, economic viability, which also equates to the buzz word of sustainability, is imperative, and must not be overlooked. Agriculture must be allowed to thrive in Washington, and it is our job on the DOE advisory group to try and make that happen.