Federal regulators are proposing to overturn the state of Oregon’s program for reducing coastal pollution runoff, saying while they see progress, the state is inadequately protecting streams that provide coho salmon habitat and drinking water.
The threat is backed up by a counterintuitive stick: If the rejection is finalized next May, the federal government would withhold up to $2 million annually the state uses to reduce coastal water pollution – the very problem the feds say needs fixing.
Federal law requires coastal states like Oregon to adopt plans to cut water pollution from indirect sources such as logging and agriculture. While the federal Clean Water Act has reduced pollution from specific sources, including factories and sewage plants, indirect sources remain a significant problem.
Like many other states, Oregon’s plan has only had conditional approval from the feds, which have long cited its deficiencies. A Portland group, Northwest Environmental Advocates, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to force Oregon to fully adhere to federal rules.
As part of a settlement, the two agencies proposed Thursday to disapprove Oregon’s plan.
Nina Bell, executive director of the advocacy group, cited it as a victory for clean water, saying it would force Oregon to tighten coastal pollution regulation. While it would reduce federal funding for pollution controls by $2 million a year, Bell said the problem is much larger than the small pool of grants at risk.
That money has been spent on projects like fences to keep farm animals away from streams and on farm irrigation systems that reduce runoff.
“Restoring a mile here and there isn’t the same as having a program that leads to widespread controls,” Bell said. With a federal rejection, “regulation can happen at a much broader scale and be much more effective than paying each landowner to do the right thing.”
NOAA and EPA officials say they’re encouraged by Oregon’s progress on polluted runoff but that three areas need improvement:
1. Storm water management for new development;
2. Pollution from aging and leaky septic systems; and
The federal agencies say the state needs to reduce pollution from logging activities past and present. Oregon needs to protect small and medium-sized streams, address landslide risks and reduce runoff from logging roads built before modern construction standards were in place, the agencies say.
“We appreciate that they’ve done a lot,” said John King, acting deputy director of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center. “But you still have to get across the finish line.”
State agencies criticized the federal decision, saying their progress shouldn’t be penalized.
“We’re disappointed in EPA and NOAA’s decision to proceed with this proposed action,” said Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy advisor. “Oregon is a national leader in improving water quality, and Gov. Kitzhaber is committed to maintaining that record.”
The federal decision would also cut $600,000 in annual funding to the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, which uses it to help local governments with coastal planning issues like tsunami readiness.
NOAA and EPA have opened a 90-day public comment period. Public comments are due by March 21 to: Joelle Gore, Acting Chief, Coastal Programs Division, Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, NOS, NOAA, 1305 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Md., 20910, phone 301.713.3155, x177, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Rob Davis