Clean-water campaign viewed as anti-farmer
By Don Jenkins
OLYMPIA — A campaign funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sway Washington legislators apparently went unnoticed during the 2016 session, but it’s getting unflattering attention now.
The chairmen of the Senate and House agriculture committees recently criticized the What’s Upstream advocacy campaign, saying it reinforced negative views of the EPA as an overreaching agency.
“If they truly did agree to this lobbying, someone with the EPA needs to be held accountable, not just a slap on the wrist, but held accountable for violating the law,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen. Blake is one of three state lawmakers who represent Pacific County.
What’s Upstream also has angered some federal lawmakers, who allege the EPA has broken laws related to lobbying and unauthorized spending.
Aimed at increasing
The campaign, however, was ostensibly directed at state lawmakers. The campaign’s lead organizers, the Swinomish Indian tribe, set a goal of changing state water-pollution control laws by this year, according to EPA records.
In separate interviews, Blake and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said they learned about the EPA-funded campaign after the Legislature adjourned March 10.
“It was a total waste of time and money if they were trying to get my attention,” Warnick said. “The only attention they got from me was a negative impression.
“I was angry about how it was paid for, how it came about and even more angry about where the actual picture of cows came from,” said Warnick, referring to a What’s Upstream billboard photo taken in Amish country of cows in a stream.
Warnick said she’s met constituents who see the EPA-funded campaign as more evidence government is hostile toward agriculture.
“They think every time they turn around there’s another fee, another requirement. To have an agency like EPA come in and do something like this is over-the-top, in their opinion,” she said.
Visitors to the What’s Upstream website were urged to “take action” by sending a form letter to state legislators asking for mandatory 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.
The link has been removed from the website. Before then, the EPA said the link did not violate prohibitions on using federal funds to lobby because the letter did not take a position on specific pending legislation.
“I can’t categorically say I never received a letter, but I don’t remember seeing anything,” said Longview Sen. Dean Takko, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Takko said he recently took his first look at the website. “It looks like someone went out of their way to make farmers look like bad guys,” he said. “If you want to see water that color (brown), wait until a good rain, especially on this (west) side of the mountains.”
Bill dies in Legislature
The Swinomish tribe, however, had been involved in a proposal presented during the 2016 session to require buffers on some farmland.
Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, introduced a bill to require property owners participating in a voluntary farmland preservation program to leave buffers along salmon-bearing waterways.
Stanford said that he worked for many months on the proposal with the tribe’s environmental policy director, Larry Wasserman.
“I don’t know if they were working on the What’s Upstream campaign at that point. I hadn’t heard of that until much more recently. But, yeah, it would tie with what the goals are of protecting the salmon,” Stanford said.
Stanford said he can understand why the website upset farm groups and some lawmakers. But he also said the site has an important message.
“I think it’s reasonable to say, ‘This is a problem and needs to be fixed,’” Stanford said. “I think part of the problem is that people feel frustrated about how little progress has been made.”
The bill was referred to the House Agriculture Committee, and Blake declined to give it a hearing.
Blake said the bill would have undermined voluntary farmland preservation efforts by imposing uniform-sized buffers.
“You may get 95 percent of the benefit with 10 feet of buffer. Adding another 95 feet makes no sense. It’s taking land out of production with very little benefit,” he said.
Efforts to reach Wasserman were unsuccessful.
Tribe spends $570K before session
According to EPA records, by the time the Legislature convened in January, the Swinomish tribe already had spent an estimated $570,000 on the campaign.
Washington Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said groups that organize grass-roots lobbying must register if they spend at least $700 in a month or $1,400 over three months.
What’s Upstream did not register. “We haven’t heard about them before now,” Anderson said Wednesday.
The Swinomish tribe hired a Seattle PR firm in 2012 and formed partnership with several environmental groups. The campaign was launched by 2013, according to EPA records, but apparently had little impact.
Efforts to obtain comment from the EPA were unsuccessful.