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State to step up farm water quality checks

SALEM — The Oregon Department of Agriculture plans to expand the monitoring of Oregon farm land for compliance with federal water quality law.

Some officials hope that will lead more farmers to seek help with programs such as tree planting to shade and cool streams, making them better able to support threatened fish species, the agricultural publication Capital Press reported.

For decades, the agency's strategy for compliance with the federal Clean Water Act on farmland was largely complaint-driven, said John Byers, manager of its agricultural water quality program. But some problems, such as manure piles near waterways or streams denuded of vegetation, may never be reported, he said.

"Neighbors don't always want to turn in neighbors," Byers said.

About two years ago, the department decided to "self-initiate" compliance with water quality rules, using publicly available information like aerial photographs and topographical maps to identify potential problem areas and then notifying the landowners.

Since the agency doesn't have the resources to conduct in-depth monitoring of the whole state, the approach was tested in Wasco and Clackamas counties.

In mid-2015, the department intends to roll out the program in six to 12 new "strategic implementation areas" once Byers determines where improvements are most needed.

An example of a project that approach might help is aimed at restoring riparian habitat along several creeks in Multnomah County.

Despite numerous entreaties from the local soil and water conservation district, most landowners have refused free streamside tree planting that would reduce creek temperatures, and only about 25 to 30 percent of stream miles targeted by the district are enrolled in the restoration program.

"Some people are just not interested in having someone else working on their property," said Julie DiLeone, rural lands program supervisor for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.

Once the Agriculture Department tells landowners they can't pollute, the solution is up to them. For technical assistance, they can seek help from a conservation district.

"If more people come in the door, at least in our district, that's great because we have the capacity to help more people," said Laura Masterson, an organic farmer and board member of the East Multnomah district.

She notes that the districts aren't regulators, so people shouldn't be afraid to come to districts for help, she said.

"That firewall is critical," she said.