Turning it around in the Tillamook
By Bruce Pokarney
Last November, on a typical grey and damp day along the northern Oregon Coast, a small boat made its way up the Wilson River- one of five rivers that drain into Tillamook Bay from an intensive agricultural area. Among the four people on the boat was Oregon Department of Agriculture Assistant Director Lauren Henderson, who hoped that he and his son could land a steelhead or Chinook salmon.
"Our fishing guide was very experienced on that river and knew it well," recalls Henderson. "When he found out I was from ODA, he was quick to tell me how much better things were on the Wilson. He said the river was much cleaner and that the surrounding dairies had done a great job of making improvements."
What a difference a decade or two makes. In the past, it was not uncommon for the guide to see spray applications of liquid animal waste on fields abutting the river on rainy days. Runoff would carry the manure right into the river, which partly accounted for high bacterial counts that violated clean water standards. But the Tillamook area, with its well-known dairies and scenic bay, has been cleaning up its act.
A unique but powerful partnership that includes private landowners, local organizations, and public agencies is making a measurable difference, backing up the fishing guide's anecdotal evidence with real data. The Tillamook may end up being a model for other Oregon watersheds that have water quality limited streams.
Recognizing problems, discovering solutions
People in Tillamook are fond of saying that their home is a "land of trees, cheese, and ocean breeze." It's an area of major dairy production as part of a watershed that includes fishing and other recreational opportunities as well as commercial oyster production in the bay. Twenty years ago, it was generally acknowledged that water quality in the five rivers was impaired to some degree.
"Fingers were pointed at the dairies," says Mitch Cummings of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). "Fecal coliform could have been coming from several sources including municipal systems, failed septic tanks, and wildlife. But there was no doubt that livestock was also a contributor."
Initially, a great deal of work was done by NRCS, the Tillamook County Soil and Water Conservation District, and other agencies to help dairies store manure so that it could be applied as a fertilizer to pastures at the proper times and rates. The first liquid manure tanks and dry manure storage buildings were installed 30 years ago, but it was a long, slow climb for the industry until several factors converged to bring about more rapid improvement.
In the late 1990s, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) added more than eight miles of the lower Wilson River to the state's list of impaired waters under the Clean Water Act. The Wilson is protected for what is called recreational contact use.
"When someone is fishing, boating, or swimming, our standard is set at a level low enough that people won't get sick through contact with the water," says DEQ's York Johnson.
A collection of public and private interests began to find solutions. Combining voluntary efforts and regulation started making a difference in water quality, but it didn't happen overnight.
In 1999, what is now known as the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership began working with other entities to implement a plan filled with recommended actions that could help improve water quality. Other partners chimed in, including ODA, DEQ, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, NRCS, Oregon State University, the Tillamook County SWCD, and the cooperative that represents the dairy farmers in the area.
"In the 1980s, water quality was limiting beneficial uses in the watershed," says Mark Wustenberg of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, makers of well-known Tillamook Cheese products. "For example, water quality was significantly impacting the local shellfish industry. Today, more area is approved for shellfish production and the frequency of closures has been reduced."
The state's Confined Animal Feeding Operation Program (CAFO) was well underway at this time and required annual inspections and an animal waste management plan on permitted facilities.
Before regulations were put in place, dairies didn't have a lot of manure storage.
"They may have had up to 10 days of storage, but when it got full, the farmers had few options but to apply the manure to the land," says Wym Matthews, manager of ODA's CAFO Program. "Then OSU extension and the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association (ODFA) started providing outreach and education. Producers learned that if they put in manure tanks, stored the animal waste, and avoided putting it out during the wet season, there would be fewer runoff-driven bacteria events in the nearby rivers."
Technical assistance and funding from participating agencies provided a shot-in-the-arm for dairy producers who were beginning to understand the role they could play in water quality improvement. Adequate storage of manure was the first step. Properly managing that waste as a beneficial resource was next.
ODA's water quality program also worked to adopt a plan and regulations in the area to deal with water quality concerns from erosion, riparian areas, and other agricultural sources. As part of this effort, Tillamook County SWCD received funding from ODA to help landowners with water quality protection projects.
Between 2002 and 2007, landowners-including dairy farmers-implemented a number of best management practices in the lower Wilson River watershed. With the help of various agencies, landowners completed 20 riparian enhancement projects that included planting, fencing, and invasive species removal. Streambanks were stabilized, cows were kept away from riparian areas.
"I can't think of a single dairy in Tillamook that hasn't done something to address its animal waste handling over the past several years or make other improvements," says the NRCS's Cummings. "Whether it was a storage tank they built on their own or it was participating in some other program, most people made an effort to improve water quality on their farm and in their community."
And the results speak for themselves.
Dissecting the data
For more than a decade, water quality monitoring has been routine on all five rivers-the Wilson, the Kilchis, the Miami, the Trask, and the Tillamook. But all the sampling in the world does no good without proper analysis. DEQ's York Johnson has closely examined the numbers every two years since 2006. When it comes to measuring bacteria in the water, those numbers are getting better.
"The data is exciting," he says. "The Wilson River came into compliance with water quality standards for recreational use in 2005. The Kilchis came into compliance in 2009. So we have two of the five major stream reaches that were on the list of impaired waters now meeting standards. That's a huge success."
Another river is moving in the right direction. Johnson uses the term "statistically significant decreasing trends," which really means bacteria levels are going down.
"The Tillamook River, while not yet meeting water quality standards for bacteria, is showing statistically significant decreasing trends at all its monitor sites," says Johnson. "If we can maintain the trends, pretty soon the Tillamook will also be in compliance."
The Trask and Miami rivers have more fluctuations with some decreasing trends at specific monitoring sites, but other sites are not consistently moving in that direction. Out of a total of 43 sites being monitored in the entire system of rivers, 22 are showing trends of improvement. Each of the five rivers has at least some areas of improved water quality.
Having solid data has encouraged landowners, including dairy operators, to keep up the good work and perhaps do more.
"It wasn't all doom and gloom from the start-we were able to show what is happening in the Wilson and Kilchis," says Johnson. "Once I was able to talk to people and tell them where we saw water quality improvements and where we still had problems, they were able to focus their efforts and concentrate on the issues they feel made the most difference. They took more ownership in the process and that's when we started to see improving trends."
Water quality monitoring remains important. Most everyone is optimistic that better management practices and handling of animal waste will continue to decrease bacteria levels in the nearby waters.
A model of success
Conservation systems that include manure storage, nutrient management, and riparian area restoration have reduced nutrient run-off from farmed lands adjacent to the Wilson and other rivers in the Tillamook area. There is enough credit to go around to a wide circle of hard working partners that includes landowners.
Just since 2008, NRCS has documented 52 comprehensive nutrient management plans in the area, several thousand feet of riparian fencing to keep the cows away from the rivers, installation of 31 waste storage facilities, and systems to move manure to field locations where it is needed most. The Tillamook County SWCD has helped secure other federal funds to support similar projects.
"There have been millions of dollars of technical assistance and cost share assistance provided by USDA and other partners in the Tillamook," says ODA's Matthews. "Has there been a benefit from that investment? The answer is, absolutely!"
Another question is whether success in the Tillamook can be applied elsewhere in Oregon where agriculture intersects with the waters of the state. The Tillamook has a tremendous advantage of having so many partner agencies physically located right in the heart of the community. Synergy has brought about significant results. But other key factors can lead to success wherever water quality problems exist.
"Through ODA's CAFO Program, all dairies have a permit," says Jim Krahn of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. "CAFO establishes a system that if someone does not adhere to the regulation, they will be brought into compliance via regulation. An important key to success is regulation. Volunteer efforts will only achieve a certain amount."
However, the record shows that for the past two decades, Oregon dairy producers have taken a positive, proactive approach to improving water quality.
"The dairy industry statewide has supported major programs and efforts over the years to improve their management and reduce potential impacts they may have on watersheds," says OSU Extension Dairy Specialist Troy Downing, who has been in Tillamook for the past 15 years. "For Tillamook, it really has been this long term commitment from everyone involved that has allowed us to see water quality improvements over time."
It's a success story that has not reached its final chapter. There is room for improvement.
"The infrastructure we have in place both from a voluntary and a regulatory standpoint, will continue to drive water quality improvements within the Tillamook watershed," says Wustenberg of the Tillamook County Creamery Association.
All the partners are committed to continuing an effort that has already shown results. Agencies agree that the biggest "pat on the back" goes to the livestock facility operators. They are the ones who ultimately implement the myriad of rules and systems.
"When I started with ODA 10 years ago, I got fairly regular complaints from fishermen who noticed dairies pumping manure that got into the rivers in Tillamook," says Matthews. "My phone still rings, but the calls from Tillamook fishermen have pretty much stopped."