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New farm bureau chapter seeks bigger voice

By Kasia Pierzga
Leader Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Roger Short

Third-generation Chimacum farmer Roger Short is the interim president of the new North Olympic Counties Farm Bureau, a local chapter of the Washington State Farm Bureau that represents farmers in Jefferson and Clallam counties. The chapter was formed in large part because of local controversy over efforts by the Washington Department of Ecology to regulate the use of water. – Photo by Kasia Pierzga

Concern about recent state efforts to regulate water use has prompted a group of farming and property-rights advocates to join forces with a statewide lobbying organization that shares its views.

With its charter set to be approved June 28, the North Olympic Counties Farm Bureau would be the 25th chapter of the Washington State Farm Bureau, and part of the nationwide American Farm Bureau.

Third-generation farmer Roger Short of Chimacum is serving as president of the local chapter until formal elections are held.

Short said the decision to form a local farm bureau is a strategic one. By taking advantage of the expertise of the statewide organization, the local farm bureau can have a bigger impact on local and state policy decisions that affect farmers and other landowners.

“We feel if we have a more mature organization with known clout, we will be able to deal with some of the issues and draw on some of their resources better than we can if we do it ourselves,” he said. “If we have our own bureau, we as a board can request help from the state bureau.”

The local farm bureau is the second local lobbying group to have formed as a result of uproar last year among Jefferson County small-scale farmers and other property owners about the Washington Department of Ecology’s attempt to set an in-stream flow rule – the amount of water that must be left in streams for salmon – in the Quilcene-Snow watershed.

The watershed, known as Water Resources Inventory Area 17 for state water-resource planning purposes, is one of 62 watersheds across the state, each of which are at various stages of state-required planning.

Jefferson County is also within the boundaries of several other watersheds – the Sol Duc-Hoh and the Queets-Quinault watersheds on the West End of the county; the Skokomish-Dosewallips watershed, which extends into Mason County ; and the Elwha-Dungeness watershed, which is largely within Clallam County .

After public outcry over what many saw as a ham-handed effort on the part of Ecology to push ahead with an in-stream flow rule for East Jefferson County’s Quilcene-Snow Basin, Olympic Peninsula legislators called for a public forum in November 2005 that drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people to Fort Worden State Park Commons. At the meeting, Joe Stohr, special assistant to Ecology Director Jay Manning, admitted the agency had gone too far too fast, and promised to seek more public input from local residents.

Water rights controversy

The controversy last fall erupted in response to statements made by Ecology officials indicating that it was illegal to use water from exempt wells – generally household wells – for crops that are sold commercially, no matter how small the acreage or amount of water used.

At the time, Ecology officials said farmers whose wells don’t already have water rights must apply for water-right permits. They also warned that the Quilcene-Snow watershed, which serves the most populous part of Jefferson County and the greatest number of small farms, doesn’t have enough water to grant new water rights.

Ecology’s statements contradicted a court decision that people with exempt wells, including small-scale, sustainable agriculture producers, could use water from those wells for their crops.

Ecology later reversed itself on the issue of agricultural use of exempt wells, saying that small-scale farmers can use existing wells for irrigation.

Some local residents, including those who are launching the new farm bureau chapter, have worried the state might say it owns all the water in Washington, and while people have a right to use the water, they’d have to install meters to keep track of what they use – and perhaps even pay the state for it.

At the November meeting, Stohr promised to open up Jefferson County watershed planning discussions to a broader variety of interest groups. The watershed planning unit now includes not only representatives from local and tribal government but also homebuilders, real-estate agents, environmental and conservation groups and the Port Townsend Paper Corp. As an organization representing agricultural interests, the new farm bureau chapter also could join the planning unit.

In January, Stohr promised to work with Jefferson County businesses and residents to develop an in-stream flow rule that balances the need for salmon habitat and the health of the local economy.

But in May, Ecology officials said the state would require agricultural water users to install meters to track water use – a development that drew sharp criticism from Short, whose family has been farming along Chimacum Creek since 1945.

Ecology officials explained that the metering would help ensure adequate flow in streams where endangered salmon might not have enough water to survive.

A professional facilitator has been hired to help manage meetings for the WRIA planning unit. Negotiations on setting an in-stream flow rule are expected to begin this fall.

Gathering allies

Short said he was never sure whether Ecology’s explanations of state water policy were accurate. He’d rather get information about the issue from an organization that represents his interests and shares his concerns.

The state organization’s expertise might also come in handy as Jefferson County planners work on an update of county development codes related to critical areas such as fish and wildlife habitat areas, wetlands, aquifer recharge areas and areas that are prone to flooding.

“It’s going to draw a lot of controversy,” said Short. “The state farm bureau has had a lot of experience in dealing with critical areas in agricultural areas all around the state, and we want to draw on that expertise to help us with that.”

The new farm bureau chapter for Jefferson and Clallam counties already has about 250 members, most of whom have been members of a chapter that also included Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. Included are traditional farmers as well as people who maintain small-scale fruit orchards and organic farms.

Short said members of the new chapter also are gathering signatures in support of Initiative 933, the property-rights measure now being promoted by the Washington Farm Bureau.

Short also has been involved in previous statewide campaigns aimed at preventing government policies and regulations from hurting the economic value of privately owned land.

“I really think that if the government is going to make a regulation, they need to look at the alternatives and see what the impact is going to be,” he said. “Especially the economic impact on property owners.”

(Contact Kasia Pierzga at kpierzga@ptleader.com.)



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