‘Pretty please’ won’t keep farm pollution from harming Puget Sound

The state and federal government pays farmers to help recover and protect salmon. But because there’s no “regulatory backstop,” the state and federal governments have no way to make sure these same farmers are actually helping salmon or even following state water quality laws.

This is the finding in a new report recently released by the Western Environmental Law Center.

Read the entire report: Agricultural Pollution in Puget Sound: Inspiration to Change Washington’s Reliance on Voluntary Incentive Programs to Save Salmon

From the report:

Unsustainable agricultural practices are degrading the waters that feed Puget Sound. To protect salmon, agricultural operations must comply with water quality laws. In Washington, taxpayers spend millions of dollars to protect and restore existing salmon habitat through the use of countless voluntary incentive programs, which essentially pay landowners not to pollute. These programs, some of which deliver important conservation benefits, are ineffective in ensuring agriculture is conducted in a manner that protects water quality. This is because there is no regulatory backstop to ensure agricultural operations comply with state water quality laws.


The federal Clean Water Act orders “the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” The time has come for Washington to put these words into action, 31 years later than intended, and endorse a regulatory approach to sources of agricultural pollution.

The treaty tribes in western Washington pointed out the same spend-but-don’t-enforce approach in their 2011 Treaty Rights at Risk Report (available here):

The tribes have called for state and federal action to better prevent pervasive pollution problems impacting treaty-reserved rights, with little response. However, when non-Indian commercial shellfish interests recently cried for relief from fecal pollution problems, the EPA promptly provided $1 million to a local county for a pollution identification and correction program. Unfortunately, the granting of funds did not include conditions that required the program to be consistent with water quality standards. After funds were turned over to the county, a governor-led inquiry into the process revealed that even the most basic of pollution controls, such as keeping cows out of streams, were not implemented. Despite the EPA funding, a recent downgrading of 4,000 acres of shellfish beds occurred in this area, impairing treaty-reserved rights and prompting the governor to declare the overall effort a “failure.”

Sometimes this lack of will to enforce laws on large agricultural operations creates a massive contrast to the efforts we are making regionally to prevent other sorts of pollutions.

From Western Law’s report:

The people of Puget Sound are repeatedly advised to reduce water pollution by checking septic systems and by being told to do our part to “pick up the poo.” The emphasis on many county program websites is on septic and other sources of pollution unrelated to industrial agriculture. Agencies spend taxpayer dollars to produce videos showing Bigfoot using a port-a-potty while claiming that “Bigfoot is elusive, just like some sources of water pollution.” But the tens of thousands of cows in industrial dairy operations in Puget Sound counties producing massive amounts of manure are neither mythical nor elusive. In an attempt to divert attention from agricultural pollution, many agencies focus on wastewater discharges from homes, waterfowl, pets, boats, and leaking septic systems. Skagit County even hired Crush the sewage sniffing dog, to help find human (but not bovine) sources of fecal coliform. Agricultural sources of pollution, on the other hand, are frequently discussed in terms of “small” hobby farms in need of keeping animals fenced away from water bodies. But the tens of thousands of sedentary cows confined in industrial dairy operations in Puget Sound counties producing massive amounts of manure are neither mythical nor elusive. Industrial agriculture is the most significant, obvious, and concentrated source of fecal coliform and nutrient pollution plaguing Puget Sound.

Earlier this year, treaty tribes spoke out against a bill in the state legislature that would have lowered the bar even further for agricultural pollutions. Craig Engelking, the lobbyist for the Lummi Nation (full testimony here), had this to say:

No one has the right to pollute water resources relied on by others, particularly those citizens with a treaty-protected right to harvest shellfish. The… permit being developed by Ecology will not be perfect and is no panacea to stop all contamination and closure of shellfish beds. However, passing legislation to delay and dilute the (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) permit that is under development is absolutely a step in the wrong direction.

The Lummi Nation has been battling the downstream impacts of agricultural water pollution for years:

Manure from dairy cows is discharged either directly or indirectly into the Nooksack River, which flows into Portage Bay. In September, the tribe closed 335 acres of Portage Bay shellfish beds to harvest because of high fecal coliform levels that exceeded National Shellfish Sanitation Program standards. Continued poor water quality led to the closure of two additional areas in December, bringing the total to nearly 500 acres of shellfish beds that are unsafe to harvest. More areas may have to be closed in the coming months if conditions are not improved.

Lummi shellfish harvesters lost an estimated $8 million in revenue from 1996 to 2006, when 180 acres of Portage Bay shellfish beds were closed for the same reason. The Lummi Nation is pressing state and federal agencies to do a better job of keeping dairy farm manure out of the Nooksack River.