Navigating Water Quality Regulations

Get informed and get involved, or you could get swept away by water quality regulations.Rancher Keith Corp is off to a meeting with regulators and local environmentalists. Tucked under his arm is a printout of the latest data he's collected from Neil Creek, a crystalline stream that burbles over ancient volcanic rocks as it weaves alongside Corp's ranch in Ashland, OR, near the Oregon-California border.Corp's

Get informed and get involved, or you could get swept away by water quality regulations.

Rancher Keith Corp is off to a meeting with regulators and local environmentalists. Tucked under his arm is a printout of the latest data he's collected from Neil Creek, a crystalline stream that burbles over ancient volcanic rocks as it weaves alongside Corp's ranch in Ashland, OR, near the Oregon-California border.

Corp's graphs chart hundreds of readings from 13 space-age temperature monitors, each recording water temperature every half-hour all spring and summer. The State of Oregon has put Neil Creek on a list of "impaired waters" because it suspects temperatures could be too high in the summer to make it suitable fish habitat. Corp believes the creek - shaded by vegetation for most of its path - stays well within state and federal temperature guidelines. He's determined to do the research to find out the true condition of the stream.

Unlike most people who study the streams of southern Oregon, Corp isn't a hydrologist or a local environmental activist. He's a full-time rancher and farmer, selling hay off 143 irrigated acres and managing a beef herd that varies in size from 50 to 300 head.

But Corp, his wife Marsha MacCormack and stepson James - as well as some of James' classmates at Ashland High School who help download the readings - have gotten up-to-speed on Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) stream monitoring protocol. They've purchased temperature monitors and thrown themselves into a six- to eight-year monitoring program.

With an irrigation gate on Neil Creek on the uphill side of his ranch and a tailwater return pond connecting to the creek below, the stakes are high for Corp.

"For a matter of self preservation, you've got to document all this," Corp says. "I think most of us, when we're directly involved in these riparian areas, are going to have to be proactive for self-defense. Then the Chicken Little approach - when people start yelling that the sky is falling - won't work because we've got credible, scientific information that says, `this is what's really happening.' "

TMDLs Are Required
A few miles from the Corp ranch, Neil Creek flows into Bear Creek. Oregon DEQ has identified Bear Creek as impaired by a host of pollutants including temperature, habitat modification, reduced flow, phosphorus, ammonia and biological oxygen demand (BOD). BOD is a measure of how much oxygen can be removed by organic matter and nutrients in the water, leaving less for fish and other aquatic life.

The state also has set limits for those pollutants in Bear Creek in a document called a total maximum daily load (TMDL). The participants at Corp's meeting will discuss the limits and how ranchers, farmers, municipalities and industry within the Bear Creek watershed will reduce pollution to stay within those state-mandated bounds. They will explore in detail such factors as treated sewer discharge from the cities along the creek, to manure runoff and the temperature of the water leaving Corp's tailwater pond.

Under section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act, states must submit lists to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of impaired waters - waters that don't meet their beneficial uses, which could include providing drinking water, fish habitat or recreational opportunities. Then the state is required to create a TMDL for each pollutant in each water body on its 303(d) list, defining the maximum amount that may enter the stream or lake without adversely affecting its beneficial uses.

"Currently, a TMDL is a tool," explains Willie Lane, EPA's acting TMDL coordinator for Region 6 in Dallas. "It sets a target you'd like to get to to say you're improving water quality to meet designated uses, and it identifies where reductions may be needed." Ultimately, TMDLs also will include plans that spell out the best management practices that will help maintain levels below the mandated limits.

For decades, TMDLs and 303(d) lists took a back seat to aggressive cleanup of point sources of pollution like factories and sewage treatment plants. But about 10 years ago, environmental activists started suing EPA and individual states to enforce TMDL rules, which address nonpoint sources like runoff from parking lots or farm fields.

Suddenly, state regulators were forced to start listing streams and writing TMDLs under court-mandated timelines. If the states didn't show results, the courts sent in EPA to take over the process.

As a result, a program originally designed as locally driven and community-based has become a race against time.

"We believe the best way of doing this is with the states and local users," says Jim Pendergast. He's leader of the TMDL Technical Support Team in EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds in Washington, D.C. "That's the ideal. Then reality steps in. If [the states] don't make enough actions in a year, environmental groups will go to court and force us to step in."

As a result, many water bodies get listed or remain on lists when there's not enough data available not to list them, admits Lane. And, TMDLs can be based on surprisingly little knowledge of a stream's hydrology.

After developing a TMDL for Oregon's Tualatin River in 1988 - one of the first TMDLs in the nation - regulators learned that natural phosphorus welling up from below the riverbed actually exceeds the limits required by the document.

The bottom line is that there's a crying need for data - and fast, before more streams are regulated without adequate information.

Mike Schmidt, a Dell Rapids, SD, farmer, says South Dakota TMDLs are shaping up to require major cutbacks in phosphorus loading, though little is known about managing the nutrient.

"That's going to be a bugger," he says. "What are you going to do with this phosphorus coming out of feeding operations? How much can you store in these upland soils?" he asks.

"There's been research done on dairy manure in California, but nothing done in the Northern Plains on beef and hog manure. We want it done here, where it freezes. Don't limit me until we have good science," he says.

Schmidt has sat on enough state advisory boards to know regulators are under the gun, too, so compromise is in order.

"We have an agreement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in this state: we will live with some of the restrictions on phosphorus applications that they put on us until we get the science," he says. "But, we've got to get the science before we get too far along on this."

Red Flag For CAFOs
Your state's 303(d) list is more than just an advisory that someday regulators will develop a TMDL for your local stream or lake. EPA's stated intention is to identify all Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in 303(d)-listed watersheds that need to apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit by September 2001.

Large operations that feed 1,000 animal units or more are automatically regulated as CAFOs. State and federal regulators, however, may also deem a smaller operation a CAFO if:

- it's considered a "significant contributor of pollution to waters of the U.S.,"

- if waters of the U.S. pass through the feeding area, or

- if the operation discharges wastewater through a man-made device such as a pipe or ditch.

Meanwhile, state criteria may be even broader than federal ones.

That could open the door to just about anybody who feeds cattle on a lot. Moreover, though grazing operations are exempt, leaving a feed wagon in the corner of a pasture may change an operation's designation to a CAFO under federal rules, notes Arnie Leder, CAFO enforcement manager for EPA Region 5 in Chicago.

Leder strongly advises any cattle owner who is or could be considered a CAFO to secure the proper permits to avoid costly enforcement actions.

"Don't wait until you get caught," he warns. "As an enforcement officer, I'm not going to worry about the operations that are out front." A big part of staying ahead of enforcement actions, he adds, is developing a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) with your local NRCS office.

Get Informed, Get Involved
Cattle industry leaders and regulators agree that ranchers and feeders need to know the issues. They need to know whether they're in compliance with existing rules and what guidelines are on the horizon. (See "Down By The Riverside,".)

And, they need to get in compliance before someone uses the Clean Water Act as a stick to beat them. Most importantly, they need to be involved.

"By all appearances, it looks like more extensive regulation is coming to the livestock industry," says Joel Palmer, CAFO program administrator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture in Salem. "It's perhaps more productive to be able to play a role in what that program looks like rather than taking a reactive stand and just fighting what's going on."

Schmidt has helped shape water quality programs in South Dakota, spending plenty of hours around the negotiating table with regulators and environmental activists.

"The livestock industry needs to at least talk with these people to tell them, `we know what's going on, and we agree to work with you - but don't hamstring us so we can't do the right thing,' " he says. "If you stick your head in the sand, somebody's going to make the rules for you."

If that happens, get ready for trouble, warns Corp. "A lot of guys are nervous about working with these government agencies - I'm one of them," he chuckles. Then he gets serious. "I didn't want to have anything to do with this. But, now I don't think there's any choice."

Down By the Riverside

Keith Corp spends many summer afternoons walking along the banks of Neil Creek, which flows past his operation in Ashland, OR. He's not scouting the fishing holes or chasing wayward calves - he's checking his string of temperature sensors.

Corp, his wife Marsha MacCormack and his stepson James have embarked on a six- to eight-year temperature monitoring program along their stretch of Neil Creek, which has been listed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as "limited" for temperature.

Working with the Bear Creek Watershed Council, the Corps acquired 13 temperature sensors. The family started with Hobos from Onset Computer Corp., Bourne, MA, ( These instruments take readings at programmed intervals that are accurate to within 1.3F. At about $50 a-piece, Hobos are a good way to start looking at temperature trends, but they are not accurate enough to make a strong case in court, says MacCormack.

In 2000, they switched to Onset's StowAway (pictured). At $120 apiece, they're a bigger investment, but they're accurate to within 13 of a degree Fahrenheit, and they matched Oregon DEQ's own monitoring equipment.

James and his classmates from Ashland High School deploy the monitors in Neil Creek and collect them periodically to download the data into the family PC. Onset's BoxCar software - a $14 investment - crunches the numbers and charts the results.

Help Is Available To Handle Water Regulation

With environmental enforcement looming, beef producers and feeders may be wondering where to turn for help.

The good news is producer friendly groups and federal monies are available to provide assistance. They include:

- America's Clean Water Foundation (ACWF), a Washington, D.C.-based, not-for-profit organization, that provides confidential, on-site risk assessments to livestock producers.

The ACWF's On-Farm Assessment and Environmental Review [OFAER] Project received a federal grant two years ago to improve environmental performance of pork production facilities and educate state agency personnel. The program has now been extended to include beef and poultry operations, according to ACWF's Chad Savage.

Producers who request ACWF's free on-site assessment will have a trained assessor walk through their operation with them to identify potential problem areas, recommend site-specific options, and assist in monitoring improvements.

Savage emphasizes that the ACWF is a third-party assessment that is voluntary and completely confidential. "Our motive is to help producers stay in business while also improving water and air quality," he says.

Producers and feeders can contact the ACWF through their state cattlemen's association or directly by calling 202/898-0908.

- Local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agencies offer both technical and financial assistance to producers interested in developing pollution control measures on their operations.

Willie Lane, the Environmental Protection Agency's acting TMDL coordinator for Region 6 in Dallas, TX, points out that federal 319 cost-sharing funds can contribute up to 60% of the cost of approved measures.

Adds South Dakota producer Mike Schmidt of Dell Rapids, "If you are in a TMDL (total maximum daily load) project area, get involved if you want to do anything in a feeding operation. That's the best source of funding we know of today - if you are under 1,000 animal units." Schmidt notes that federal cost-share funds are currently not available for large operations.

For more information on the 319 program, contact your local NRCS.

- Several state Farm Bureau Federations also offer Farm*A*Syst, a self-assessment test that producers can request. This checklist allows producers to walk through their operation themselves and pinpoint potential environmental problems. For a copy of the checklist, contact your local Farm Bureau.

- Help is available on the Web as well. To find out which streams or lakes are on your state's list of impaired water bodies, check EPA's catalog of 303(d) lists:

The definition for waters of the U.S. is at

For an overview of Confined Animal Feeding Operation regulations, visit

By Steve Werblow and Kindra Gordon