Former EPA chief inspired incentive-based state effort for curbing runoff

Jay Gordon's dairy farm sprawls over 1,000 acres in the Chehalis River Valley about 90 miles southwest of Seattle.

A sixth-generation farmer, Gordon has done a lot to protect the river that winds through land his family homesteaded in 1872. He fenced his cows to keep them and their wastes out of the water. He planted vegetation along the riverbanks to reduce erosion. And he runs a mostly organic operation.

But he's dead set against what he calls myopic environmental regulation.

"You can't come in here and say today the 'flavor of the month' is endangered chinook," he said, referring to ongoing efforts in the state to protect salmon. "You have to start local. You have to start with people who understand the ecosystem, whether it's the tribes who have been there forever or the landowners."

It is a common complaint among landowners -- and it is one reason state and federal regulators have struggled to tackle so-called nonpoint source pollution that washes off farms, lawns and roads. Finding a one-size-fits-all regulation for thousands of independent landowners is far more difficult than negotiating with the large companies that run coal plants and industrial facilities and discharge wastewater from pipes.


Washington state thinks it has found a potential solution. Last year, its Legislature created the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which enables counties to come up with watershed plans with incentive-based programs for landowners.

Now the state is pitching the program as a model for U.S. EPA in hopes the agency will help fund the effort.

"The concept is that it's not just our one program here in Washington, it's that federal agencies are trying to figure how to come together to make this happen," said Ron Shultz, director of policy and intergovernmental relations at the Washington State Conservation Commission. "This is an example of an approach you can use in states ... to go on the ground and target the resource concern."

It is not an entirely new idea. EPA's Healthy Watersheds Initiative, for one, encourages states to take a holistic approach to managing watersheds. The agency -- along with the Department of Agriculture -- also offers grants to states for a variety of initiative-based conservation programs.

But Shultz says Washington's program captures both regulatory and incentive-based actions under one roof, essentially providing one plan for everything from salmon protection to water quality improvement.

The Washington program also has an important supporter: former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus.

In fact, the process that came up with the Voluntary Stewardship Program is referred to as the "Ruckelshaus Process," wherein farmers, environmentalists and state officials negotiated for five years to arrive at a mutually accepted structure. Tribes also had a seat at the table, though they declined to sign onto the final agreement.

"Once they decide that they can make progress by working together, it's like magic -- the whole thing shifts, the whole set of incentives shift," Ruckelshaus said in a recent interview.

The two-time EPA administrator has never been shy about what he sees as EPA's challenge in regulating nonpoint source pollution. He describes the traditional tactics as too hierarchical; farmers, he said, are approached by regulators "right out of law school, reading from a manual."

But each farm is different, Ruckelshaus said, and some federal and state requirements do not make sense on a local level. That causes landowners, he said, to view government as "totally irrational."

'What we're doing now isn't working'

That was Gordon's view when one county tried -- unsuccessfully -- to enforce a mandate that would have prohibited landowners from using land within "channel migration areas," or areas where a river might veer over the next 100 years.

"It would have left me zero farmland," Gordon said, describing such actions as essentially telling farmers to "take your kids, cows and cash and don't let the door slap you on the ass when you leave."

Environmentalists are also unhappy with the current system -- for different reasons.

Len Barson of the Nature Conservancy said many counties exclude agricultural activities from regulatory action. And when regulations are imposed, it begins years of squabbling and court cases.

"Of course, there's always going to be reservations about something new," Barson said. "On the other hand, what we're doing now isn't working particularly well. We're looking to give this a shot."

John Stuhlmiller, director of government relations at the Washington Farm Bureau, said the Voluntary Stewardship Program could provide "the much overused win-win scenario."

"We hold great hope that the VSP will provide a world that is incentive based to provide benefits to agriculture and the environment," he said in an email.

"If successful, there will be less regulatory action and oversight to reach desired environmental goals."

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) signed the Voluntary Stewardship Program into law last year. Of the state's 39 counties, 28 opted to participate.

Under the program, landowners would work off a countywide watershed plan to come up with individual proposals to meet the area's resource goals. Complying would mean financial help and some regulatory cover; opting out could mean further scrutiny if countywide goals aren't met.

The idea is to make resource protection individual. Some farms may find removing pesticides is the answer, for example, while others may decide to set up a buffer zone near waterways.

Shultz said the program could also catch landowners who now fall into the cracks between regulations. Horse farms have become popular, he said, but while the animals may affect waterways, owners often do not make enough income to come under agricultural requirements.

Under the law that set the program up, counties would have to measure their progress in three, five and 10 years. If goals are not met, they must retool their plans and look for holes in their implementation.

But so far, the program has stalled at year zero.

Search for cash

Finding funding has become problematic. The state has few available funds, and federal agencies are similarly being squeezed by a Congress focused on cutting the deficit.

Shultz said the Washington State Conservation Commission has reached out to EPA, USDA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the state's congressional delegation. A spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the panel's staff has asked to be kept updated on the program's progress.

Ruckelshaus also has lent a hand, pitching it as the next step for environmental regulation.

Regulations are "affecting a lot more people directly," he said.

"When you talk about changing the structure of EPA, you've got to get down to the people who have been impacted."

Shultz estimates the program would need $5 million for the first two years. Watershed plans must be set within the first three years to jump-start the program; otherwise, participating counties will revert back to the state's Growth Management Act. The law is similar to the Voluntary Stewardship Program in that it relies on local government, but it is more focused on forcing compliance than on incentives.

So far, it is unclear where the money will come from. In a statement, EPA said there "are no specific offers of financial assistance to Washington state for this effort."

"Washington's actions to address nonpoint source pollution are among a number of approaches that states are taking to balance their agricultural and water quality goals, and EPA encourages states to use approaches that work well for them," a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Request a trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines