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WEAN slams farms, county

Farming is a constant menace to streams and wetlands on Whidbey Island and is threatening the public health, an environmentalist group is warning a state growth board.

It’s the latest broadside from the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN, against Island County growth planners and the farming community. WEAN has been embroiled in a bitter battle against Island County that boiled over last year about the county’s new farming regulations.

The county adopted new farming regulations last month, one of the final steps in the dispute with WEAN over rules the county first adopted in the late 1990s.

Those regulations, which included rules on how lands could be farmed that have environmentally-sensitive features like wetlands and streams, have been highly controversial. The dispute went through a state growth board review and two Courts of Appeals cases before the county was ordered to rewrite the rules.

A state growth board will take a last look at the case June 22 to determine if Island County’s new regulations jibe with the state’s Growth Management Act, the sweeping law that protects forestland and farms from urban-style development.

WEAN is now asking the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board to reject the new farming rules, and the county’s new water-quality monitoring program that will search for pollution in island streams and waterways.

The new rules and the water-quality program aren’t enough to protect “critical areas” such as streams and wetlands, WEAN said in a 32-page submittal to the hearing board last week.

In perhaps some of WEAN’s harshest language yet during the controversy, WEAN described farming operations as a continual threat to the Whidbey Island environment.

“Damage to critical areas from agriculture is long-standing, ongoing and well documented,” the submittal says, adding that farming has polluted streams and wells, contaminated shellfish beds, and hurt recreation near the water. “Agriculture threatens public health throughout Island County.”

County reacts

County officials reacted strongly to WEAN’s May 29 rejection request to the growth board.

“Even for WEAN, this is surprising,” said Phil Bakke, Island County planning director.

He said WEAN’s legal filing was filled with “alarmist accusations.”

And he questioned why Steve Erickson of WEAN never raised those same issues in front of farmers during the numerous public hearings on the new rules.

“Why did they wait until the last minute of an appeal to start raising these types of issues, and outside of the public eye?” Bakke asked.

WEAN has long worked to protect Whidbey Island’s wetlands, streams and fragile ecosystems.

And WEAN has been a constant critic of the new farming rules, which require farmers to apply “best management practices” to their agriculture operations, and cover farms that have been in operation for years. New farmers will have to abide by stricter rules within the county’s sensitive areas ordinance. Some farmers will also need to complete custom farm plans that will show how they are managing their lands in earth-friendly ways.

WEAN says that isn’t enough. WEAN also says new farm plans won’t protect streams because few current farm plans do. And the organization has raised doubts that few will know what those farm plans require because they will be kept secret from the public.

It was WEAN’s effort to examine farm plans last year that led to the Legislature adopting a new exemption to the state’s open records law that now makes the plans private.

Before the law was passed, WEAN reviewed 115 farm plans prepared over the past six years by the Whidbey Island Conservation District.

The environmental group said a third of the plans reported streams or waterways on the property in the plan, and almost half had buffers of 25 feet or less. Other plans suggested no buffers at all.

In last week’s request to the growth board, WEAN said streams were polluted throughout Island County.

Most streams on Camano, and some on Whidbey, “revealed most with bacterial contamination at levels far in excess of state standards for bodily contact,” WEAN’s legal papers claim.

Bakke said WEAN doesn’t have the evidence to back up the organization’s charge that agriculture is threatening public health.

“Their claim is scientifically indefensible,” Bakke said.

It’s not enough to take a few water samples from streams and draw wide-scale conclusions, he said.

“They’re playing with people’s emotions to get them excited and upset. And recklessly,” Bakke said.

During a moment of political theater at one of the earlier public hearings on the new farming rules, WEAN spokesman Erickson presented county commissioners with a bottle of water that he said had come from a Camano Island creek. Erickson said the water contained traces of fecal coliform bacteria that were 75 times higher than state standards.

Bakke said it’s not fair to assume agriculture operations were to blame.

“We don’t know whether it is related to agriculture, (septic system) drain fields, birds. We don’t know what the source is,” he said. “The water quality monitoring program is going to come up with those answers over time.”

That program to test and monitor water quality in waterways across Whidbey and Camano islands, however, would be tossed out if WEAN prevails during the growth board’s review of the new rules.

“All through their brief they attest to it being a phony or a fake program. It’s insulting,” Bakke said. “They know what the intention is, and they know it’s very real.”

Bakke said the effort to protect critical areas is serious.

“The county means it,” Bakke said.

“We just hired a surface water quality manager,” he continued. “There’s three new full-time staff members who will be monitoring water quality, and two of the three have been hired. We’re going to create this baseline over the next few years, and are taking a very scientific approach to looking at what our water quality is in the county. It’s something the county has never done before.”

Bakke bristled at the WEAN claim that the county’s new rules and programs won’t protect critical areas.

“I think that we couldn’t disagree more with that. This program has been modeled after successful programs in other jurisdictions; Whatcom County is one of them. This goes a few steps further in protecting the environment.”

What’s more, he added, the new regulations only apply to a relatively small set of agriculture operations.

“We’re talking about a finite number of people. These regulations only apply to existing and ongoing agriculture. Any new operations have to comply with the county’s critical areas regulations, period. There’s no exceptions,” Bakke said.

WEAN also says the new county rules focus too much on water quality and don’t do enough to protect other functions of streams and wetlands.

But county planner Jeff Tate said the county will take up those issues later. The new rules were a direct response to the court case, and the county’s work on its overall critical areas program continues.

“It’s not a closed book. We’re not done with our critical areas update,” Tate said. “We still have to deal with fish and wildlife habitat.”

WEAN also told the state that the county won’t be able to monitor farmers who use BMPs, or be able to check to see if the new farm plans are being implemented.

County officials disagree.

“I think the monitoring implementation is going to work out very well,” Bakke said.

The county has contracts in place with conservation districts in Island and Snohomish counties to get farm plans developed.

“And there’s a section in the interlocal agreement that allows us to go to the landowner or the conservation district and ask them to do an assement if we get a citizen complaint,” he said.

Numerous state agencies – from Fish and Wildlife, to the Department of Ecology, and others – support the county’s approach to protecting farming and environmentally sensitive lands.

“I’m willing to take criticism when it’s deserved; this just seems to be an attempt to create a problem where frankly there isn’t one,” Bakke said.

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