Washington's water quality rises in priority

Cindy Moore, Water Quality Protection Manager, Washington State Department of Agriculture

From federal agencies to local citizen groups, concern about the availability of clean Washington state water has grown due to increased groundwater contamination, dwindling salmon stocks, agricultural and urban runoff in many streams, and a general realization of limited water quantity. This mounting concern has resulted in new voluntary programs and regulatory restrictions. Regulatory agencies are focusing their attention on the agricultural industry and are making decisions that could have far-reaching effects.

One of the biggest water quality issues threatening agriculture is the listing of salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act. The Snake River salmon and the Upper Columbia steelhead were recently listed in Washington state; the Upriver Columbia Chinook will probably be next. These listings will result in the decreased availability of water for irrigation to thousands of acres of land, and could affect barge transportation of grain. As the number of endangered species increases, so do disruptions to agricultural and transportation systems.

While the National Marine Fisheries Service focuses its attention on endangered salmon and steelhead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is targeting groundwater contamination from pesticides. EPA is expected to finalize a rule this year that directs states to develop state management plans for four restricted-use pesticides. These plans are intended to allow the continued use of those pesticides important to a state's agricultural industry, while ensuring that groundwater resources are protected from contamination. If Washington state does not write plans for atrazine, simazine, metolachlor, and alachlor, Washington growers will no longer have these products available for use, a situation that would impact some minor use crops. To ensure that sound decisions are made to protect groundwater and the vital uses of these compounds, the Washington State Department of Agriculture is gathering usage data and making plans for a public process to determine the best management strategy.

Additionally, several hundred bodies of water throughout the state exceed federal and state water quality standards. In accordance with the Clean Water Act, state or federal agencies must develop plans to manage bodies of water that do not meet specified standards. In Washington state, many rivers suffer from increased temperatures and fecal coliform contamination. While it is understood that several industries contribute to the problem, regulatory agencies and the public are focusing anew on the agricultural industry portion of the equation, as water resources become limited.

The forecast for agriculture may get worse before it gets better; regulators will continue to scrutinize management of animal wastes, the adequacy of irrigation systems, and pesticide use. The good news, however, may be that this new focus on agriculture is resulting in public-private partnerships and the development of voluntary measures, which have the potential to be the best solution for everyone with agricultural and environmental interests.

Return to title page April 1998 Agrichemical and Environmental News