Powder River Clean-Up Plan Runs Into Blowback from Baker County

By Antonio Sierra  |  March 7, 2024  |  Oregon Public Broadcasting

As the state looks to reduce E. coli in Baker County’s Powder River, county officials question DEQ’s data and conclusions.

Oregon has measured high levels of fecal bacteria in Baker County’s Powder River for years, and now they’re readying regulations to lower it. But the Baker County government is settling in for a fight.

For the first time, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is putting together a plan for the Powder River Basin’s total maximum daily load, a plan they will use to try to lower E. coli levels in the basin.

Since it started collecting samples in the late 1990s, DEQ has recorded bacteria loads higher than federal standards, especially in areas downstream of cattle pastures. E. coli can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans and can be especially harmful to young children.

While DEQ is forging ahead with its plan, Baker County officials are questioning the state’s methods and conclusions. In a county where cattle far outnumber human residents, local leaders say DEQ’s attempts to clean up the basin’s waterways could hurt the agriculture industry.

The Process Behind the Load Plan

The 153-mile Powder River flows almost entirely in Baker County. Fed by several creeks, the river is a tributary of the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border. The river is primarily used for agricultural and recreational purposes, like swimming and fishing.

Alex Liverman, a watershed program analyst for DEQ, said the federal government requires the state to put together a load plan as a part of the Clean Water Act. While Oregon may have known about bacteria contamination for decades, Liverman said time and resource constraints meant her department wasn’t able to write a plan until recently.

Liverman said DEQ isn’t just focusing on bacteria and will eventually put together similar documents to regulate river temperature and nutrient pollution.

“It’s a complex soup,” she said.

This first attempt at managing the Powder River’s bacteria load has proven contentious.

As of Tuesday, the plan has generated 154 comments from 94 unique commenters. Liverman said the comments are fairly split between those who support and oppose the plan.

Once the public comment period ends, DEQ will use the comments to revise its plan before presenting it to the state’s Environmental Quality Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Once they both sign off, Liverman said DEQ will take another 18 months to create an implementation plan that will outline strategies to reduce bacteria pollution in the basin.

The state’s plans are limited in scope, Liverman said, and aren’t changing water quality standards on the river.

But that hasn’t stopped the county government from pushing back.

While local leaders agree that animal waste is likely the biggest contributor to bacteria pollution, they feel that cattle ranchers are being unfairly singled out.

The 2022 Census of Agriculture counted more than 67,000 head of cattle in Baker County, about four times the number of people who reside there.

According to the local leaders, DEQ is not listening to their concerns as it prepares to hand down its rules.

County Defends Cattle Industry

Baker County Commissioner Christina Witham and Doni Bruland, the county’s natural resources coordinator, were among the signers of a letter that accused DEQ of plans that were “ramrodded” through the process.

“No one knows the county better than the people who live and work here, but it appears that our voices do not matter,” they wrote.

Their complaints revolved around the argument that DEQ had relied on incomplete and inaccurate data to create the rules.

In an interview, Bruland said DEQ blamed cattle for bacteria pollution but wouldn’t conduct DNA testing on its samples to determine what kind of animals were contributing to the issue.

The pair of locals argued that it could be wild animals, such as elk, birds and sheep, who are responsible for the pollution, despite the state data showing that runoff from cattle pastures tested especially high for E. coli.

“Migratory birds are dirty.” she said.

Bruland said the county was frustrated by the lack of communication from DEQ. She added that the county couldn’t get a clear answer from the agency about what would happen if the river’s bacteria levels don’t go down once the state’s plans are in place.

“Our assumption is, they’ll have us remove livestock near streams or wherever they think we need to remove livestock from, which is a huge economic effect,” Bruland said. “In Baker County, we rely on agriculture to keep our economy going.”

The county wants DEQ to reconsider its plans and allow the county to hire its own contractor to collect water samples. Once the county has its own data, Bruland said, county officials and DEQ could make a plan.

Bruland believes the results of DEQ’s regulation could have effects for generations to come.

“It matters to me because this is my culture,” she said. “It matters that I have grandkids and they want to go into ag.”

The Lifeblood of Baker County

Liverman said there are certain logistical challenges in meeting the county’s suggestions.

The DEQ analyst pointed to the county’s request for DNA testing. While she said it had a place in the process, the scale of DNA testing that would be required to get an accurate picture would be too time-consuming and expensive.

Liverman said she plans to do more outreach with county officials once the load plan is set and they begin planning for implementation.

And not all of the people who have commented on the plan are against it. Brian Posewitz, a staff attorney with WaterWatch of Oregon, said his environmental nonprofit is usually more concerned with water supply than water quality. But after hearing some of the comments opposed to the plan, WaterWatch decided to get involved.

“These rivers belong to everybody, and they should be protected for everybody, not just for the agricultural interests,” he said.

Bruland said the county ultimately wants the same thing as environmental groups but under certain conditions.

“We want clean water,” she said. “We have to have it. It’s our lifeblood, but not at the expense of (it being) based on poor quality data.”

Liverman said even if additional testing revealed that wildlife was mostly responsible for bacteria pollution on the Powder River, a load plan was coming. If the state failed to come up with a plan or the EPA rejected DEQ’s proposal, she said, the federal government would come up with its own plan for the basin.

This story originally appeared on the Oregon Public Broadcasting website on March 7, 2024.