Narrower buffers in the works
Launched about four years ago, the AFW process includes regulators from state and federal agencies, along with representatives from nine ag groups across the state. AFW’s goal is to come up with guidelines that agency and conservation districts can use to develop farm plans that will help fish recover.
Last month, AFW negotiators recommended that the state’s current CREP buffer requirements be replaced with “national riparian standard No. 391.” The national standard calls for narrower buffers than those under the state’s version of CREP.
CREP, which is a voluntary conservation program, pays farmers rent for 10 to 15 years on land planted in trees and brush along fish-sensitive waterways. The goal is to compensate farmers for land taken out of production to improve fish habitat and water quality.
Under the state’s existing CREP standards, buffer widths on either side of a fish-sensitive waterway must be three-quarters the height of a site-potential tree. In Western Washington, that translates into an average buffer width of 150 feet, and in Eastern Washington, 50 feet.
In contrast, under national riparian standard No. 391, buffer widths on either side of a fish-sensitive waterway would measure 35 feet in narrow waterways where no floodplain exists. In other waterways, the buffer width would be a minimum of 100 feet, or 30 percent of the floodplain, whichever is less – but not less than 35 feet.
Adopting the federal standard would make Washington state’s CREP program consistent with Oregon’s.
Each state enters into an agreement with the federal government on how CREP will be handled in that state.
On March 27, Gov. Gary Locke sent a letter to two top conservation officials – “Gus” Hughbanks, state conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and James Fitzgerald, executive director of the state’s Farm Service Agency – advising them of AFW’s recommendation for CREP.
“The CREP program remains an integral piece of the state’s Salmon Recovery Program, and I am pleased by its progress and potential for growth,” said Locke in his letter.
Locke also said that according to his understanding of the situation, adoption of national riparian standard No. 391 is a “relatively streamlined process” that could happen within a matter of weeks.
Valoria Loveland, director of Washington state’s Agriculture Department, calls the proposal to change the state’s CREP buffer standard an important step in the right direction.
“It would expand CREPs flexibility and ability to help agriculture participate in fish recovery,” she said.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Hughbanks said he expects the technical aspects of putting the change into place to flow very quickly.
“I think we’re ready to go,” he said.
Even so, NRCS will have to archive the state’s CREP buffer standard and establish the new one. It will also need to train employees and coordinate with FSA so that its revised notice will specify which buffer standard to use.
FSA’s Fitzgerald said it appears to be a “green-light-go” on the state level. But FSA will need to consult with federal fisheries agencies on this change. Since Oregon uses the national standard for its CREP program, he doesn’t expect that to be a problem.
Commenting on AFW’s recommendation to change the buffer requirements, Fitzgerald said that if most of the negotiators in the AFW process think it’s fair, “that’s as good as it gets.”
“It’s definitely good news,” he said.
Steve Landino, state director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s habitat conservation division, confirmed that consultations with federal fisheries agencies will be necessary.
But he didn’t expect the feds to throw up any significant roadblocks.
“In general, (national riparian standard) No. 391, when properly implemented, will be OK for fish and for farmers,” he said. “We’re always in favor of planting trees where there are none.”
Nevertheless, he said that there’s nothing quick about the consultation process. Writing a formal biological opinion, for example, can take 135 days.
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