Water quality, riparian areas & agriculture in Tillamook County

cattle.jpgA few weeks ago, I discussed how the North Coast’s watersheds produce abundant water resources that don’t always come at the right times and in the right places, leading to unexpected droughts which, in turn, drive the need for water conservation. In this post, I will discuss the quality of that precious water as it picks up a variety of natural and human-made pollutants in its journey to the Pacific Ocean, a local estuary, into underground aquifers, or to our taps.

First, what do we mean by water quality? Like beauty, the quality of water is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the user. When we turn on the taps in our homes or put a glass of water to our lips, we trust that the liquid inside is water fit to drink. If we worry at all, we are concerned about taste, odor and color. At the same time, we are less concerned about the quality of the water we pour on to our gardens, farm fields, and pastures, though we might still have concerns about salinity and toxic chemicals. Someone growing vegetables or fruit may also be concerned with pathogenic microbes in their irrigation water. Likewise, while most of our domestic animals can handle far more pathogenic organisms in their drinking water, most dairy or beef producers would prefer to prevent gastrointestinal infections. Shellfish growers are particularly sensitive to water quality, especially excessive nutrients, sediment, and bacteria.

When it comes to fresh water in streams, lakes, estuaries and wetlands, we might be concerned about all of these issues, but should be most concerned with the qualities of water that impact fish, plants, and wildlife using it. These include excess sediment, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, pathogenic microbes and nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. Fish and aquatic life also depend upon dissolved oxygen to breathe. If the life-giving oxygen is not present in the water at the right time, then organisms rapidly perish. Nutrients can cause harmful algae or weed blooms, which are themselves considered a problem for water quality, largely because the decaying plant material uses up the dissolved oxygen in the water. Since people enjoy recreation in these waters, we must pay attention to how water quality might impact these users too.

So what about the quality of water on the North Coast? Since the quality depends on how the water is used, then let’s take a brief inventory of North Coast water uses. First, dairy farms, other livestock production and horticulture use the majority of water resources on the North Coast, followed by our many small urban areas, and then by rural residential water districts. Important industrial users of water such as the Tillamook County Creamery Association and our lumber mills also require clean water for their operations. Wells and springs provide private water systems for many residents in the region. Lastly, Tillamook County’s seven major river systems provide water to countless salmon runs, estuary ecosystems, wetlands, and abundant wildlife.

Farmers, industry, and drinking water providers need water that is free of microbes such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) or other fecal coliform bacteria, toxic chemicals, or excessive nutrients. Cloudy or turbid water filled with suspended sediment can also pose a problem for these users, but are more of an issue for waters that are habitat to native salmon and trout (known collectively as salmonids). Likewise, waters that are filled with nutrients, sediment, metals, and toxic chemicals can pose problems for wildlife and recreational uses in our streams, wetlands and bays.

In addition to chemical or biological parameters, water can also exhibit physical qualities, most importantly, temperature. Streams that do not have sufficient shade in the form of riparian (streamside) trees and shrubs can become uncomfortably warm for runs of native salmonid populations. In some cases, sea-bright fish returning to these streams will survive the warm zones before they reach better, cooler habitat, but if conditions are bad enough for long stretches, then fish kills are a dramatic and unfortunate outcome. Juvenile salmonids have even lower rates of survival in abnormally warm waters.

In addition to the rivers and estuaries, water from small and large streams also winds its way through the sands of our favorite beaches or waters just offshore. The result is that microbes and chemicals from that water are often deposited on to our beaches. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that water at American beaches was made unsafe for swimming by E. coli a record number of days last year. The non-profit organization compiled data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state and local health departments, and local beach monitoring programs. Several North Coast locations made the list of improved (most Clatsop County beaches) and worsening beaches (Twin Rocks Beach) for closures due to E. coli in the water. As recently as early August, Neskowin State Beach was closed due to E. coli contamination.

So what is the status of water quality in Tillamook County? Unfortunately, with the exception of the Nehalem River (which still exceeds temperature standards), all of the major rivers in our county are what the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality calls water quality limited, meaning that one or more of their water quality parameters exceed the national standard (by use) set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since they receive the polluted river water, Tillamook, Nehalem, and Nestucca bays also received failing marks. These rivers and their most problematic water quality parameters are listed in the following table.

River

Water Quality Limitations

Kilchis River

E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, temperature

Miami River

E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, temperature

Nestucca River

E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, temperature

Tillamook River

E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, temperature

Trask River

Fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, temperature

Wilson River

E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, temperature, low dissolved oxygen

So, what do we do about poor water quality in the rivers of Tillamook County? While everyone in Tillamook County should be careful to prevent water pollution there are some simple practices that may help to address our two biggest concerns: high water temperatures and excessive bacteria. These include animal waste management and management of our streamside riparian vegetation. Here are some brief suggestions for how livestock producers, hobby farmers, and others can help improve the conditions of the water quality in our streams:

  • Manage animal waste away from water sources or in a way that prevents manure from entering water. Both constructed or vegetated barriers and swales can be effectively used to prevent waste from running into surface water.
  • Livestock managers should pay attention to how water moves across their landscape in order to understand how water may serve as a pathway for manure into local streams. Keep animals and animal waste out of these pathways by fencing year round or applying appropriate grazing practices when water is present.
  • Allow access to off-stream watering tanks to keep animals from natural surface water. This also keeps animals healthier and allows for more time spent grazing the high-value forage on the pasture and not in the riparian zone.
  • Pay attention to your manure application rate. Publications for calculating the appropriate rate are available through the OSU Extension Service.
  • Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) must follow their animal waste management plan as required by Oregon Department of Agriculture, CAFO permit. The most common set back for spreading manure is 35 feet from any surface water, but this can vary with topography and other factors. This set back is required only for mechanical application of manure and not grazing animals.
  • It is critical, however, to keep livestock out of waterbodies. Fencing should provide an ungrazed area adjacent to streams for riparian plants to become established, as well as to prevent excessive stream bank erosion by livestock trails. See the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s North Coast Agricultural Water Quality Management Area Plan for more information on how to do this.
  • Maintain a healthy riparian area by planting a variety of appropriate tree and shrub species, keeping weeds controlled through mechanical or herbicide applications (carefully selecting the type and following the product’s instructions), and protecting saplings from herbivores such as nutria or beaver. The Tillamook Estuaries Partnership Backyard Planting Program and Tillamook County Soil and Water Conservation District can provide direct assistance in fencing and planting riparian areas for qualified land owners, depending upon funds and conditions.

More information on water quality and preventing water pollution can be found at the Oregon State University Extension Service – Tillamook County, 2204 Fourth Street, Tillamook, OR 97141; (503) 842-3433.

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