River buffers worry farmers
December 20th, 2003
Washington State - Melvin McInturf's cherry farm is snuggled between the yellowish bluffs of Ringold and a silver bend in the Columbia River, north of the Tri-Cities.
He has lived and farmed there all of his life.
McInturf, 91, and others in agriculture are concerned the new year will bring new pesticide regulations they believe might devastate their crops.
Last year, the U.S. District Court of Western Washington ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had not consulted with other federal agencies as required by the Endangered Species Act to determine if certain pesticides might harm fish.
Until the EPA and NOAA Fisheries can agree on how to deal with regulating pesticides that may affect threatened or endangered species, the judge said he will impose restrictions on where farmers can spray pesticides on their crops near rivers and waterways. These temporary buffers would include about 36 pesticides by Jan. 1. That's less than the original list of 54 pesticides proposed earlier, but it still doesn't ease of minds of farmers such as McInturf.
"It's not about salmon and pesticides, it's about the process in our government that's broken down," said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.
The buffers for listed pesticides would be 60 feet for ground applications and 300 feet for aerial applications from the water. The buffers would be required for any fish-bearing stream or river and be measured from the ordinary high water mark.
Boss said he is worried those temporary buffers may be in place permanently or put in place longer than two years depending on how long it takes the two federal agencies to work together. By then it may be too late for some farmers, who may suffer heavy financial losses.
As he walked along a rough clay road toward his Bing cherry orchard bordering the river, McInturf said, "I hope I can fight this and survive."
Some of the 36 pesticides listed include those McInturf uses to control cherry fruit fly and other soft fruit pests.
"It would almost wipe me out," he said. "Fruit fly takes the entire crop. If you don't spray, every cherry has a maggot in it."
And he said not spraying some of the crop is just as bad. Flies will grow in the unsprayed trees and then infest the sprayed trees. McInturf guessed he would have to cut down about four rows of fruit trees to save the rest of his orchard.
The ruling will affect farmers on a case-by-case basis.
"If your land doesn't border a creek, you're OK," said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests based in Olympia. "If you have a long narrow piece of land next to a creek, you could lose most of your farm."
For the fish
Those in favor of the buffers and more protection for fish say the interim measures are long overdue.
The coalition is just one of the plaintiffs in Washington Toxics Coalition vs. EPA.
"Pesticides can kill salmon outright or they can affect them more subtly," she said.
Schreder said pesticides also could affect salmon behavior, slow fish swimming speeds, affect their schooling behavior or harm their reproductive and immune systems. She said the buffers are a positive step, although more should be done.
"We'd asked for actual sales restrictions for pesticides in urban areas, but it is not likely that the judge will go that far," she said.
Schreder said there are other options for farmers.
"First of all, the injunction only applies to a small number of pesticides, and there are alternatives to those pesticides," she said. "Chemical as well as nonchemical."
Farmers say those options are more expensive and less effective. And some pesticides can't be applied easily by ground.
"Ninety-five percent or more of Di-Syston is sprayed by air," said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
Di-Syston, a common pesticide, is on the list and is used on asparagus during the fern stage of its growth, when applying it would be difficult by ground and require special equipment.
"It's the only real thing we've got to control asparagus aphid," Schreiber said.
The last straw
Agriculture in the state -- especially tree fruit -- has been struggling, said Britt Dudek, a tree fruit grower in Wenatchee.
"It's been a tough five or six years," he said.
High labor costs, the consolidation of food distributors who demand lower prices and low-priced imported fruit have all hammered growers, Dudek said. "That's why this is the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
Just how much the new regulations will hurt farmers is hard to determine but could cause a ripple effect, Schreiber said.
"We are just starting to see how that is going to play out," he said.
One possibility might be lost pesticide registrations.
Pesticide companies are required to register their product for each crop. If regulations are increased, pesticide companies might choose not to register chemicals for smaller crops such as asparagus, Schreiber said.
"The companies may at some point say, 'We only sell X amount, and it's costing us that much to keep it on the market,' " he said.
Those companies may only register the chemical for large volume crops, making it unavailable for use on smaller-scale crops.
Another effect could be lost farms and could bring new housing development to waterfront property, Dudek said.
"My odds are they are going to end up in 5-acre home sites, and we are going to loose the agricultural ground," he said. "We could be dragging people out of business and only replacing them with something that might be more harmful."
In Ringold, McInturf said that because of the unique climate on his farm between the bluffs and river, he has never lost a cherry crop -- yet.
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