Clean water on agricultural lands: The facts about Ecology’s watershed evaluation program

Cows on a woody vegetation area, with labels showing livestock fencing, off-stream water trough, grass filter strip and  riparian buffer.

Cattle are excluded from streams and provided off-stream water. The grass filter strip and large woody vegetation prevent pollutants such as nutrients and fecal coliform bacteria from reaching the stream. The trees and shrubs also maintain cool water temperatures needed by fish. 

An important part of our work is to find and control sources of pollution that don’t come out of an industrial pipe.

Sometimes these sources of pollution are livestock.

While streams may pass through private property, they belong collectively to all people in the state. We believe that clean water on agricultural lands can be achieved and operations can remain profitable. We do not need to choose between the two. We can and should have both.

Our routine watershed evaluation work in Eastern Washington has been called into question by some. In doing this work, we evaluate and record pollution problems. Then we follow up with landowners to try to find ways to fix the problems with available state and federal funding.

Cattle by a stream on a dirt path, farmland in background.

Examples of site conditions pictured here known to contribute to pollution are extended access to surface water; slumping stream banks and erosion; overgrazing of grasses; bare ground and exposed soil. Find more photos on Flickr.

There have been some mischaracterizations of this important watershed evaluation work. We want you to have the facts.

Ecology is not unfairly targeting livestock lands. We address all types of pollution including city and construction stormwater run-off, logging practices and agricultural production. Our watershed evaluation program allows us to prioritize our technical and financial assistance where the health of our rivers and streams are clearly impacted.

Some call this work “Ecology’s list of polluters.” The information we collect is a database of recorded site conditions and locations where water quality problems exist. We use this information judiciously. To set a wider context, we have performed livestock watershed evaluations in eastern Washington since 2001. During that time, we have taken just five formal regulatory actions.

Ecology has worked with more than one hundred livestock producers, resulting in the protection of more than 300 miles of streamside areas. Many of these livestock producers report that their operations are more viable after making changes that also protect clean water.

Watershed evaluation process

To conduct our annual watershed assessments, our field staff stays on public property adjacent to streams and look for signs of pollution. For livestock lands, we identify sites with water quality concerns based on site conditions we see. The connection between these site conditions and water quality problems is well documented in extensive scientific literature.

In cases of significant pollution problems Ecology communicates and coordinates with local conservation districts and then contacts landowners to provide financial and technical assistance. If landowners are concerned that they may have pollution problems on their land we are more than willing to discuss our evaluations of individual sites.

We are committed to helping landowners get the assistance needed to protect clean water. Many of the same practices that prevent pollution can also help landowners:

  • Better use range or pasture
  • Create grazing plans that improve forage availability
  • Set up winter feeding and calving areas to better protect the health of the animals
  • Receive significant rental payments to protect stream corridors

The choice to work with us and receive funding for needed changes is a unique service for agricultural landowners. This is not available to most industries.

Financial commitment

We also understand the concerns that producers have that management changes could affect them financially. To help address and alleviate these concerns, we provide producers assistance to not only protect clean water, but also opportunities to enhance the economic vitality of their operations.

We work hard to get grant funds into the hands of local conservation districts so they may help livestock producers address pollution concerns. Approximately 3.5 million state dollars have been directed toward programs to help livestock producers with water quality and farm improvements in Eastern Washington alone.

We are in this together, we all need clean water.

Read more about our work with aricultural lands here.

See more photos of problem areas and improvement projects in our Flickr photo set Watershed evaluations.