About Columbia County VSP
Those of us who live in Columbia County are well aware of the significant role water plays in our lives. From the Touchet and the Tucannon, to the Patit and Pataha, and the thousands of tributaries to those streams, every bit of our environment is shaped by water. The water is responsible for the abundant wheat crop, the rangeland, the forests, and the wildlife. It is vital that we manage our impacts on this water-based system to ensure that it will continue to enhance our county far into the future.
Science and technology have for years been applied to the environment, in order to protect those features that are so important, while allowing us to continue with our livelihoods, be it farming, ranching, mining or timber harvesting. Up until now, the management of our natural resources has been regulated by government at the state and federal levels, which often are too remote from the on-the-ground realities we face, and the one-size-fits-all approach is frequently unrealistic and/or unworkable. But, there is another way.
Columbia County has taken the positive approach of opting-in to the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP). VSP is an optional, incentive-based method to protecting critical areas while promoting agriculture. The VSP is allowed under the Washington State Growth Management Act as an alternative to traditional approaches to critical areas protection.
One of the goals of VSP is to promote plans to protect and enhance critical areas where agricultural activities are conducted, while maintaining and improving the long-term viability of agriculture in Columbia County. The Washington Farm Bureau says, “An innovative and Ag-friendly alternative, VSP provides a reasonable approach to balancing critical area protection and Ag viability objectives.”
In order to successfully develop VSP within Columbia County, we have formed a Watershed Work Group, which includes a broad representation of key watershed stakeholders.
The process for preparing the Voluntary Stewardship Program is shown below:
Timeline with Milestones of Tasks
- Form VSP Work Group | February, 2016
Composed of representatives from agencies, agricultural interests, tribes, etc.
- Conduct Background Information Research | Feb to June, 2016
To leverage existing resources and avoid redundancy with ongoing watershed efforts, the Consultant will perform a comprehensive review of existing plans, regulations, and activities, consistent with the requirements of RCW 36.70A.700. The aim of this review was to identify what critical areas exist within each watershed, the scope and extent of the critical area protection baseline and ongoing protection activities, and what areas may need further attention from this Workgroup to promote voluntary enhancement of critical area functions and values (above the critical area protection baseline) through incentive-based measures.
- Watershed Background Research | Feb to July, 2016
Columbia County’s watersheds have undertaken Watershed Planning processes under RCW 90.82, and have established implementation and monitoring plans for those basins. Watershed plans focus on issues relating to water quality, water quantity, and habitat. Through this process, each basin planning unit has identified areas where water
resources and habitats are functioning well, local issues of concern, objectives and strategies, and methods to monitor progress toward those objectives.
- Critical Areas Intersection | July, 2016
In order to establish baseline monitoring of critical areas and agriculture conditions within the watershed, the VSP Work Group will conduct an inventory of agriculture and critical area resources. This includes the important intersection between agricultural lands and critical areas.
- Viability of Agriculture in Columbia County | June-July, 2016
In order to establish goals that strive to enhance agriculture conditions within the watershed, the VSP Work Group will examine hurdle and roadblocks that impact the viability of agriculture.
- Restoration and Conservation Actions | July-Sept, 2016
The Consultant will examine current NRCS conservation practices, including the habitat work schedule to ascertain restoration and conservation actions that have taken place since 2011 which will qualify as positive activities towards the VSP goals.
- Setting Pragmatic Goals & Benchmarks | July-Sept, 2016
Goals and benchmarks for protection and enhancement need to be practical, achievable and reasonable to measure and meet. Metrics potentially affected by non‐agricultural activities or factors should be avoided. The Work Group also needs to account for potential VSP participant withdrawals when establishing goals and benchmarks:
“If the watershed group determines that additional or different practices are needed to achieve the work plan’s goals and benchmarks, the agricultural operator may not be required to implement those practices but may choose to implement the revised practices on a voluntary basis and is eligible for funding to revise the practices.” (RCW 36.70A.750.)
- Setting Critical Areas Goals & Benchmarks | July-Nov, 2016
Goals will be developed to protect the value and functions of critical areas in the basins, and allow for the enhancement of these critical area functions through voluntary measures. Benchmarks willidentify specific measurable benchmarks
that would be monitored in accordance with the VSP legislation.
- Developing Core Elements of the Work Plan | Sept 2016-Feb 2017
The VSP Work Group’s core task is meeting the statutory test the Technical Panel, Statewide Advisory Committee and Conservation Commission Director will apply in determining whether or not to approve the VSP Work Plan: “… at the end of ten years after receipt of funding, the work plan, in conjunction with other existing plans and regulations, will protect critical areas while maintaining and enhancing the viability of agriculture in the watershed.” (RCW 36.70A.725) According to the VSP statutes, the Work Plan must be approved if the above test is met within three years after receipt of funding, as determined through the VSP Work Plan Approval process.
- Developing Benchmarks of the Work Plan | Feb-March 2017
The Work Group’s second core task is to create measurable ten‐year benchmarks designed to promote voluntary, incentive‐based measures 1) to provide long‐term protection of critical areas and 2) to encourage voluntary enhancements to improve critical areas. Together these voluntary incentive‐based efforts reflect the three core
“test” elements of an approvable VSP Work Plan: 1) protection of critical areas; 2) maintenance and enhancement of agricultural viability; and 3) voluntary enhancement of critical areas through promotion of incentive‐based measures. Though critical area enhancement is not part of the initial VSP Work Plan Approval test, the Work Plan must also include benchmarks for promotion and implementation of Voluntary actions designed to protect and enhance critical areas.
- Meet the “Protect Critical Areas” Test | March-May 2017
This Work Plan must detail how Columbia County through the VSP will protect critical areas while maintaining and enhancing the viability of agriculture in the watershed. The definition of protection in the legislation for the Voluntary Stewardship Program indicates that “Protect” or “protecting” means to prevent the degradation of functions and values existing as of July 22, 2011. (RCW 36.70A.703) Important elements of this definition of “protection” include the terms “degradation”, functions and values”, and the baseline date of July 22, 2011 and what information is available as of that date.
- Meet the “Maintain and Enhance Agricultural Viability” Test | March-May 2017
The VSP Work Plan must “maintain and enhance” agricultural viability to receive approval. (RCW 36.70A.725.) Some VSP statutory sideboards implicitly help to maintain agricultural viability. For instance, the VSP Work Plan is to rely on voluntary stewardship “as the primary method of protecting critical areas and not require cessation of agricultural activities.” (RCW 36.70A.700.) The County, and the VSP Work Plan, may not “require an agricultural operator to discontinue agricultural activities legally existing before July 22, 2011.” (RCW 36.70A.702.) Also, VSP statutes do not grant counties or state agencies any additional regulatory authority to protect critical areas on lands used for agricultural activities. (RCW 36.70A.702.) In order to promote producer participation and productive discussion among Work Group members, VSP statutes prohibit county promulgation of new critical area regulations related to agricultural activities during the VSP process. (RCW 36.70A.130(8)(a).) Further, nothing in the VSP statutes requires participation from agricultural operators, which is voluntary only. (RCW 36.70A.705.)
- Submit Work Plan for Approval | June, 2017
The VSP Work plan must be submitted to the Director of the State Conservation Commission and technical panel (see RCW 36.70A.735) within two years and nine months after receipt of funding. The technical panel then has 45 days to review and provide response to Director. The Conservation Commission Director must approve the Work Plan within 3 years of funding or the county must comply with the non‐VSP (regulatory) critical area protection requirements of RCW 36.70A.735. If the Technical Panel says the Work Plan doesn’t pass the statutory Work Plan Approval test, the Work
Group must modify and resubmit the Work Plan.
> If no agreement is reached in 2 years 9 months, work plan is sent to the Statewide Advisory Committee made up of representatives of environmental, agricultural, local governmental, and tribal agencies and stakeholders.
> If no agreement in 3 years, the work plan does not go into effect and an alternative regulatory path must be selected. See RCW 36.70A.735 for alternative paths.
- Monitoring, Reporting & Adaptive Mgt. | Oct, 2017- On-Going
The Work Group will conduct periodic evaluations, institute adaptive management, and provide a written report of the status of plans and accomplishments to the county and to the commission within sixty days after the end of each biennium. The Work Group will report on whether goals and benchmarks have been met in 5 years after receipt of funding, and also at the ten year mark and every 5 years after that. Adaptive management or additional voluntary actions and funding may need to be identified if goals and benchmarks are not met.