WAITSBURG – During its Jan. 25 Annual Meeting, Walla Walla Conservation District Manager Renee Hadley spoke about the direction the district will be taking in 2017 and beyond.
Hadley said that, over the past decade or more, the district was able to install a significant number of on-ground projects involving irrigation efficiency and projects related to fish passage. The majority of those large projects have been completed.
She said the district will be shifting away from the larger efficiency projects to pursue education on soil health and groundwater.
Hadley was hired as assistant district manager in March 2016, with the intent of training to take over for Rick Jones who retired last May.
Hadley said the current shift in focus stems from a combination of leadership experience (Hadley is a geologist and Jones was a fish biologist), what has already been completed, and where funding remains available.
The nonprofit WWCCD was established in 1961 and serves to bridge the gap between local landowners and federal or state agencies. The district obtains grants to help landowners implement conservation practices and offers professional advice and cost-share when possible. The district has nine employees and is directed by a board of supervisors.
"There is a need and interest to help dryland farmers and address weed management. I am still pursuing these topics but, unfortunately, there are not a lot of grants available for those tasks. There are lots of grants available near water, but dryland doesn't qualify for most of those," Hadley said.
Hadley said between 40-50 people attended the annual meeting where they also heard updates from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency.
The updates were followed by presentations on bees, by Dr. Steve Sheppard; herbicide resistant weeds, by Dr. Drew Lyon; and cover and companion crops for the inland northwest, by Diana Roberts.
Voluntary Stewardship Program
Attendees also received an update on the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), which Hadley described as a "big topic." The VSP was developed in 2011 as an alternative to the strict Growth Management Act Critical Areas Ordinances (CAO). It sets up a system that allows local farmers and environmental agency representatives to work together to develop ways to protect critical areas.
There are two main differences between CAO's and VSP. First, under VSP, priority is given to protecting both critical areas and the viability of agriculture. Second, VSP is a voluntary process, while GMA is a regulatory system.
VSP applies only to areas where agricultural activities intersect with one of five critical areas in the county: fish and wildlife habitats, wetlands, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, and geologically hazardous areas.
"Part of the program is that, unlike the CAO, with VSP, the entire county will be evaluated on how will it meets the goals it sets. It's not like the CAO, which regulates individual property owners. With VSP, local people develop the work plan, which is then approved by the state committee," said WWCCD Assistant Manager Audrey Ahmann in an interview with The Times.
"For example, speaking hypothetically, say VSP work plan specifies that 75% of our critical riparian areas will be protected with buffers, with a goal of replanting 30% of the buffer areas to native trees and shrubs. If half of the farmers set aside a buffer, and an additional 40% enroll their riparian areas in a restoration program like CREP, then the county will be in compliance with its VSP. The remaining 10% won't be subject to penalty or further regulation.
"Under CAO, the state could say that all farmers must set aside a 30 to 50 foot buffer, period. This could cause court fights and may result in farmers going out of business. To my mind, it's really interesting and will impact a lot of local farmers and ag producers, even very small ones," Ahmann added.
Participation in VSP is optional per county. In 2012, Walla Walla County opted into the program and selected WWCCD to administer VSP development on its behalf.
Hadley said WWCCD has formed a work group and hired the Anderson-Perry and Associates engineering firm to assist in developing the work plan document, which sets the goals or benchmarks for critical areas. The group has met monthly since May.
Once the work plan is finalized and approved, participating farmers will receive individual farm plans to help the county meet the benchmarks. If a majority of area farmers participate, then the goals will be met. Progress towards meeting the benchmarks will be tracked over time and if the county fails to meet the benchmarks, the county must revert to the heavy regulation and enforcement of the CAO's.
"We are at least halfway complete (with the work plan), but add and revise sections monthly. We aim to have the draft work plan ready for public comments by the end of June, but we are grateful to have public input during the whole process," Hadley said.
Several local farmers have benefitted from the work of the WWCCD in recent years. One example is the Smith Sediment Reduction Demonstration Project featured in the District's 2015 Annual Report. The district was able to help Waitsburg wheat farmer Glen Smith address erosion from a field-access road that was depositing sediment into Coppei Creek. The creek is an important spawning and rearing stream for threatened Mid-Columbia River steelhead.
The WWCCD engineer drew up plans and the district secured funding from the Washington State Conservation Commission and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The district was then able to help Smith install an inlet structure and piping that directs run-off water to a nearby field where the sediment is filtered out.
The district estimates that the project keeps an estimated 30 to 50 tons of sediment from the creek, which results in cleaner water for fish and a stable road for Smith.
In 2013, the district began work on the multi-phase McCaw Fish Habitat Restoration Project to restore damage from the 1996 flood to the Touchet River Corridor, downstream of the City of Waitsburg's dike system. The district worked with the Jack McCaw Farm to construct two apex log jams, two large engineered log jams, six log sweeps, two secondary channels, grass seeding and stream treatment, to improve water quality and fish habitat.
Funding was provided through grants from the Recreation and Conservation Office, the state Conservation Commission, and the state Department of Ecology.
A shot of the same area after the woody debris was added.
The WWCCD also helped repair flood damage to the Perry Dozier farm in 2009 and 2010. The district procured funding through the Recreation and Conservation Office to install rock barbs, root-wads, sweeper logs, and relief channels. They also treated 2,100 feet of stream bank and 2.9 acres of riparian zone, seeded 1.2 acres of grass, and installed 3.260 native plants.
"I am very proud of the projects that the district has successfully implemented over the last 20 years. The woody debris project on the McCaw reach is continued proof that the WWCCD continues to do good work for this county and fish restoration in general," said Waitsburg farmer Guy McCaw, who served on the WWCCD board for over a decade until 2012.
Interested parties can learn more about the WWCCD and the Voluntary Stewardship Program online at http://www.wwccd.net.
The VSP work group meets the first Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. in the WWCCD office, located at 325 N. 13th Ave ., Walla Walla. A discussion of wetlands will take place at the next meeting on Feb. 7.