Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What’s Upstream Generally Comes Downstream


Guest blog by Pete Haase

I have followed the “What’s Upstream” campaign – website, Facebook, and billboard campaign-- that argues for more water pollution regulation of agriculture. I’ve seen pop-up ads for it in several online news sites over many months.  On its web site it has a lot of information about water pollution caused by some agriculture-industry players because of minimal regulation or oversight.  I say “minimal” because I am well aware of the extensive water pollution regulations and inspections that almost any other industry, port, or municipality is subjected to.

For example:  If a marine repair shop is sanding paint off a boat in their boatyard, the sander must be equipped to suck up the sanding dust, and most likely the boat is shielded with tarps to prevent any that might escape from blowing away.  However: Airplanes and helicopters often fly over my house and dive down into the berry fields and out comes a huge plume of who knows what. A major slough runs right through those fields and soon drains into Padilla Bay.

Another:  When herds of cattle graze in fields that border a stream or ditch, it is common practice to set the fence as close to the top of the bank as possible, without it falling in. Farmland is precious.  Some places have hundreds of cattle loitering along those fences, rain or shine.  However: When a big construction project is going on, you will see barriers, fences, pumps, blue water-storage and treatment tanks, and covered dirt piles.  Sometimes the big trucks have their wheels washed before driving out. You might even see the person who is there to make sure that all those “best management practices” for erosion control work, and that no dirty water flows from the site, rain or shine. You’ll see porta-potties, too!

The “What’s Upstream” campaign points out examples like those instances of agricultural pollution and highlights a lot of damage done.  It urges folks to write to their elected officials to ask for more stringent regulations and inspections.  There is a way to send “letters” right from their web site.

It was a pretty quiet affair until up went some big, blatant “What’s Upstream” billboards with cows on them in Olympia, and similar signs showed up on buses in Bellingham. It was sort of like poking a bee’s nest with a stick.  The agriculture advocates jumped and protested and got the insulting billboards and signs removed pronto.  The argument was that the campaign is largely funded from a Federal Environmental Protection Agency grant, and those grants do not allow campaigning directly.

In the meantime I regularly see on online news outlets three different pop-up, rolling “advertisements” from my county Clean Water Program.  One reminds dog owners to “Keep picking up after your dog.”  Another reminds me that there is a law requiring septic tanks be inspected regularly and I should be sure I am current.  The third shows a man with a “two-pickup load” pile of what appears to be manure and he is covering it with a blue tarp that is maybe 10’ x 10’.  “Cover your manure piles.”  It felt a bit like “arm twisting” with public money.

(There are none of these ads about the farmer and the 100 cows in a waterlogged field with the fence next to the stream.  There are none talking about a tractor pulling a spouting sprayer through a big berry field near the stream or a dairy having 50 pounds and more of manure and urine a day from each of hundreds of cows.)

Further, the whole “Save Puget Sound by 2020” campaign, overseen by the state Puget Sound Partnership agency, is quite a bit of advocacy to get us to stop everything that might possibly harm Puget Sound, like building bulkheads, dumping waste overboard from boats, or driving a car that leaks oil.  It is not private money funding that.

I once saw a small trucking firm that was pressure washing the truck engines in their concrete driveway.  The water flowed down to a storm drain that was about 100 feet from, and emptied into, Fidalgo Bay.  I took a picture and reported it to the hot line phone number.  They don’t wash there anymore.

I also recently saw about 30 cows grazing in a field in heavy rain.  There was a little ditch in the field with water running down it and some of the cows were standing in it.  The ditch drained through a road culvert, over the side of a bluff, and into Padilla Bay.  I took a picture and reported that to the hot line number.  One of the responding agencies is trying to find out who owns the cows and the other is waiting to be able to take water samples. The cows and the ditch are still there.

I, too, think it is time to regulate agriculture for water pollution just like other industries, cities, ports, and counties.  The farmers will survive.  Everyone else did.


[Pete Haase is an energetic environmental volunteer in Skagit County.  He likes being in the field with teams, doing things that he hopes will make a difference.  Much of what he does is citizen science.  Pete also likes engaging the public, helping them appreciate volunteer efforts and getting them to add their voices in support of protection and restoration. Pete has been named by RE Sources as a 2015 environmental hero.]

1 comment:

  1. In regards to your concern that agriculture is minimally regulated and that public funds are being used to “arm twist” hobby farms, septic owners and pet owners on how they can help the pollution problem but not being used to address farmers.

    First, I would encourage you to “#askafarmer” about their regulations. Just like with any industry, if we aren’t personally involved we don’t know all the ins and outs of their occupation. The best way to find out? Talk to someone IN that industry. Do it with the intention of true interest, learning and of working together. Admittedly not all will respond positively but at least you’ve taken the first step and you might be surprised at what you find out.

    Considering the fact that clean water is impacted in part by hobby farmers, septic owners and pet owners, I think educating the public how they can help is a good thing. Sometimes people are unaware of the issue or forget that doing your part when you’re one of many, can make a difference. Educational advertisements are a great way to reach out to the public. It is a common practice that has been successful for years. One important aspect of those advertisements is that they be based on facts. This is where the whole “What’s Up Stream” “educational advertisements” go wrong. Ag impacts water quality, sometimes negatively, we don’t deny that. There are some that don’t follow the rules, we don’t defend that. However, to say that agriculture is unregulated, like the billboards and bus ads portrayed, is untrue. To use pictures of dairy cows in streams implying occurrences of that are common in WA state, is also untrue. Not only is it untrue, it is illegal. If it happens, they will be fined. These advertisements were not factually based and were very accusatory not encouraging or educational nor did they have a let’s work together attitude. Of course, dairy farmers are going to protest them!

    Farmers are under many regulations and many are going above and beyond to help protect our water and the environment. Farmers, just like many business owners, are constantly working with different government agencies. All agencies realize that our water quality issues are complex; there is no one source of pollution but many. There is no one answer that will fix it all. Just because you don’t see advertisements educating farmers, doesn’t mean that the education of farmers isn’t happening. In fact, at the last educational workshop, 140+ farmers attended just in Whatcom County. Farmers are very aware that we have a big impact on water quality, either good or bad, and most of us are doing our best to make sure that impact is good. Many farms have survived but many have not. Think about how many farm fields are being converted over to housing, offices or shopping. For every farm that doesn’t survive, there will be an impact on the environment and not necessarily a good one.

    We all want clean water, let’s work together.

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