Homelessness and Water Quality

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Homelessness and Water Quality

By John Azevedo, President

Published April 1, 2016

It’s time for me to write another article about water. The good news is this month as I write this we have a full soil moisture profile and everything is well saturated. We are in great position going into spring when it comes to having water to grow crops and water livestock. It’s a big improvement over the last couple years, so things are looking up. The water issue I get to rant about this month is water quality.

I recently had the opportunity to join some of my colleagues from work and participate in a day of volunteerism. The mission we were on this year was to help clean up trash along the Russian River at Monte Rio. There were almost 40 of us out there and I think we did a great job. A smaller group of about 8 of us tackled cleaning up an abandoned camp. We spent a couple hours hauling out thousands of pounds of trash and loading it into pick-ups and dump trailers. It was a very successful day and we definitely cleaned up the area we targeted.

Now what does this have to do with agriculture? The whole time I was hauling trash off the bank I couldn’t help but think of the efforts farmers make to keep our streams clean. I was thinking about the Dairy Waiver, Vesco, and the pending irrigated lands permits we will all have to deal with if we don’t already. Now, I understand and appreciate these are in place to tackle of a mix of potential pollutants like manure, sedimentation, pesticides, and fertilizer. It is different than the trash I was picking up but it is all part of the same water system we are supposed to be protecting.

It really makes me want to highlight our successes with local programs like the Dairy Waiver and Vesco. Both are incredibly effective and both can be used as examples of how farmers try to do the right things. Both were created by agriculture to help us set standards improve the way we all operate. Both work. Now we have the pending irrigated lands discharge permits/waivers which region 1 and 2 water quality control boards are cooking up for us. In my mind this is an unnecessary additional layer of regulation for Sonoma County.

What my day at the river highlighted to me was how successful agriculture has been in continuing to raise our own standards and adopt measures that help to protect the environment around us. It also highlighted what I now think is the biggest threat to water quality in Sonoma County, the homeless problem. All of the trash we cleaned up was the result of a homeless encampment that was along the river last summer. By the looks of it, it was there for a long time and my guess is we just provided spring cleaning for some folks who will return when the river recedes.

In a recent meeting with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s department, Farm Bureau was told they only move the homeless from private properties. In cases like the camp I cleaned up, I’m sure the Sheriff would only be able to deal with a drug or violence issue. In the words of the Sheriff: if they were to move them, the homeless would just find another waterway to camp in.

So who do all of the Federal and State regulators and agency folk meet with to address this issue? Homelessness seems like a bigger threat to our local environment than anything else to me and seems like the problem is getting worse not better. It seems like any creek or stream near a county road if you look hard enough you will find a homeless camp in it. I would like to see County and State government work to tackle this issue. It would give more credibility to these agencies the next time they want ag to do more for clean water. I guess the only folly in that thought is how do you assess fees on the homeless like they do on agriculture?