Narrower buffers in the works

April 24, 2003

Farmers can expect to see narrower buffer requirements under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program now that Agriculture, Fish and Water negotiators have reached an agreement on this controversial issue.

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 Eastern Washington, that translates into an average buffer width 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 (FSA) -- advising them of AFW's recommendation for CREP.

Locke 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.

She said, "It would expand CREP's flexibility and ability to help agriculture participate in fish recovery."

The Natural Resource Conservation Service's Hughbanks said he expects the technical aspects of putting the change into place to flow very quickly.

He said he thinks they are "ready to go."

Even so, Natural Resource Conservation Service 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.

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.