May 21, 2009 - Keeping the Dog at Bay

On May 12th, a group of livestock producers met with representatives from Department of Ecology to discuss water quality issues. The meeting was a follow up to letters sent to 10 local producers indicating a DOE field rep had observed indicators of poor water quality (also known as cows or sign of cows in the vicinity of a stream). Water quality data was not used, the problem was inferred from the indicators. There may be no visual indicators per DOE’s checklist on 364 days out of 365, but if the DOE field rep drives by on the 365th day, a producer may be judged to have a problem and be sent a letter for follow-up.

There are eight best management practices (BMPs) listed by DOE as appropriate responses, one being fencing creeks and the other seven addressing operational BMPs. The producer group raised good reasons why the visual indicators may not relate to actual water quality, why objective criteria should be used to tailor actions to the site, and why fencing creeks is a bad idea for most producers. Unfortunately, the DOE field rep had no way to respond other than to repeat the parameters of the current program. Monitoring management practices over time is a difficult proposition for one field rep covering a huge territory, observing a fence in place is simple. DOE’s preferred solution relies heavily on providing government grants to subsidize building fences on creeks as a clearly visible indicator that “something” has been done. The message came back clearly from producers – fences and government money with government strings attached are not solutions.

DOE did admit fencing can be a last resort, if the other seven BMPs address the visual indicators. Changing management practices may be an opportunity to improve both water quality and profitability, but it is hard to be objective about your own operation. It is even harder to listen to someone from DOE tell you “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

There is an alternative - to work with two or three other producers to give you an objective viewpoint from folks who are walking in your shoes, a kind of “value engineering” process. As an architect, I work on public projects which are required to go through value engineering. A team of architects and engineers with a fresh perspective review the design documents and prepare a Value Engineering report identifying areas of problem or potential improvement. The report provides good information to an open-minded design team on where they might fine tune their project. I’ve been on both sides of the process, and learn something every time to improve my own practice. Every operation has room for improvement. If there is enough interest, I’ll work with the Lincoln County Farm Bureau to organize an informal value engineering process for livestock producers.

If we want to make fencing a last possible option in Lincoln County, we need to be creative in implementing the other seven BMPs in a way that reinforces their value and work to establish realistic objective measurement criteria. The current letters have put 10 of our neighbors into “technical assistance mode” with DOE. There were no enforcement letters or fines (yet). While it is necessary to keep pressing DOE about the scientific parameters of their program and the principle of respect for private property, those are separate from how to handle the immediate challenge. If you saw a powerful dog approaching a toddler, you’d act first to get her out of harms way and talk to the city about a leash law at the playground later.

For those who’ve already received letters, the best choice is to call the DOE field rep for a meeting and invite our Lincoln County Conservation District folks along as advisors. Pursuing legislative and administrative change to the DOE program is a long term effort, one that groups like Lincoln County Farm Bureau, Cattlemen’s, CPOW and others will continue to pursue. The immediate goal is to stay in technical assistance mode, and keep the powerful dog at bay. Building individual relationships is our best first shot at avoiding building fences.