OLYMPIA -- A court battle threatens to force massive amounts of Washington's farmland out of production, a development that has the state's farmers urging the state to intervene.
In 2002, a federal judge ruled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't adequately study the effects of certain pesticides on salmon. The environmental groups that brought the lawsuit asked that interim regulations be imposed until the EPA completed studies on the effect of 54 pesticides. Those studies still are not complete.
Several farmers and commercial pesticide applicators told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that new regulations, as proposed, could put them out of business.
The regulations, which are in the final comment period, would set buffer zones around many more waterways than current rules, Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture, told lawmakers.
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In the wrangling over what those interim regulations should be, the EPA now is considering rules that would set much wider buffers on many more streams and canals running through farmland.
"It could take a great deal of land out of production," Newhouse said.
The proposed buffers for pesticide application would apply to every stream and canal flowing through farmland, regardless of their distance from salmon habitat, and would affect 61 percent of land in the state, according to Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests.
The waterways would include intermittent streams and drainage canals. Farmers say that could mean a lot of the land where they now grow crops would have to be left vacant. There would be a 500-foot buffer set on some of those streams.
Hansen has asked both of the state's U.S. senators and its U.S. representatives to try to get the EPA to work with farmers on the regulations. She asked state lawmakers to put pressure on federal officials to tone down the regulations.
"The buffers will apply to every ditch and canal -- if water may drain into something that drains into something that drains into the Columbia River," Hansen said.
Farmers also will have to get a determination from EPA on what the buffers will be for streams, and those buffers can change with the season.
"That's a phenomenal amount of time and paperwork," she told lawmakers.
And a lot of land won't be farmed because it can't be sprayed for pests.
Douglas County farmer Jim Kempel said 42 percent of the land he plants with orchards would fall in buffer zones under the EPA plan.
"We as a family farm cannot survive if we can only farm 60 percent of our land," Kempel said.
Nathan Wilson owns an aerial pesticide application business in Royal City. He talked about ways aerial sprayers already work to keep pesticide on the plants and out of the water. But he said the additional buffer zones could hurt any farm-related business.
"No one is going to grow anything if they can only treat 9 acres," Wilson said.
Alan Schreiber, director of the state asparagus commission and a Mid-Columbia farmer, said the new regulations could put some already struggling farms out of business.
"There are farms that go broke every year -- this is a tough business," Schreiber said in a phone interview.
The sad part, he said, is the public likely won't notice shortages of locally grown produce when the small farms go out of business because stores will just buy it somewhere else.
"This is just bad public policy."