Monday, October 12, 2009

Who regulates farmland in Washington state - Department of Ecology

The Washington state Department of Ecology regulates a wide variety of issues that come up on farmland.  The one that I've had the most experience with is their regulation of "the waters of the state". 

This regulation comes from the clean water act of 1976, a federal act.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delegated the enforcement of the clean water act to the state department, and the state has been busily expanding their regulation ever since. 

This regulation includes both the consumption of water, for irrigation or livestock, and the production or treatment of stormwater.  If you drill a well, for instance, you'll need to get a permit from Ecology.  Water rights are also administrated through ecology.    Local farmers find they cannot use land because of lack of water rights. 

One way to see what an agency is doing, and what they regulate, is to look at enforcement efforts.  When an enforcement effort is appealed, it goes for a hearing in front of the Environmental Hearing Office (EHO).  You can see a summary (and search keywords) for cases that the EHO has decided. 

I've read through 40 or so of the cases listed, and the Department of Ecology is very concerned with water quality -- and has taken many dairy farms to court on various issues, farmland and a variety of other topics.  Most of the decided cases are about animal-related operations, but there's a smattering of other farmers in there.  Shellfish farmers, cranberry farmers, row crop farmers.   The majority of cases that the EHO hears are lost by the people bringing them.  That makes sense -- Ecology has the good sense to drop or settle cases where they're going to lose. 

If any part of your property is in the flood plain, might contain wetlands (which are considered waters of the state) or any of your practices might have some impact on water (ditches, ponds, even buried water) you'll probably get to know these guys. 

The National Resource Conservation Service is a USDA program that is set up to help you implement programs to keep the Department of Ecology away from your operation, and if you're considering farming, you should contact your local NRCS office and have a chat with them about your basic situation with an eye towards setting up a farm plan.  This appears to be the cheapest way to deal with these guys. 

When you look at the Department of Ecology's priorities, you'll notice that it doesn't say a word about farming.  Ecology does not care about farming, and is one of the primary ways that farmland is being converted to other uses. 

This conversation happens one of two ways:

1) Ecology has been one of the biggest propopents of flooding estuary farmland for salmon habitat restoration.  This is usually accomplished by purchasing the land and then breaching the dikes.  Since they're purchasing the land in most cases, this isn't as odious as the other primary way that they convert farmland. 

2) Ecology has developed the opinion that, after some time, if your property has certain types of vegetation on it that you can no longer farm that land.  It happens most often in flood plains of rivers, and basically means that if you allow anything to grow unchecked you run the very-real risk that your land will be "wetland" or "riparian habitat" or any of a variety of other designations.  Anything, in short, but farmland. 

To get your land back often involves paying off ecology by designating "natural growth protection areas" (NGPA), which are effectively a permanently lost percentage of your property. 

Since farming has been marginally profitable in the last few decades, there are tens of thousands of acres of good land lying fallow.  Each year that this land is not tilled increases the risk that you will not be able to till it in the future. 

You'll find EHO cases here. 
You'll find Ecologys priorities here
Here's a list of the folks that Ecology has fined recently

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