March 04, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

For a few Eastern Oregon landowners, the letters E-P-A have become the stuff of nightmares.

Inspectors for the federal agency are looking for water problems. If they spot potential problems from the air, ground-based inspectors head out for an on-site inspection. If problems are found and the landowner isnt working to solve them, life becomes, well, lets say unpleasant.

Locally based agencies, though, are putting the word out. They are here to help keep the boogeymen at bay.

Our goal is two-fold, said Jeff Oveson, director of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed Program. We want to assure compliance with the Clean Water Act, and we want to keep private landowners out of trouble.

At the Union Soil and Water Conservation District office, Sarah Hendrickson echoes Oveson.

We want to keep landowners out of trouble and provide both clean water and help, she said.

At issue: The EPA inspectors ability to issue private landowners compliance orders to fix problems of animal waste getting into water supplies.

The model watershed, along with other state agencies, have a number of programs that landowners can apply to for help resolving issues of cleaning up water systems. The various programs can pick up 50 to 75 percent of the cost of the work, Hendrickson says, and many times landowners can do in-kind work for their portion.

However, Oveson explained, if the EPA issues a compliance order before a landowner has sought remedial help, many funding programs become unavailable.

Its so critical to call us right now, Oveson said.

Why the warnings?

The EPA, Oveson said, flies over areas in a fixed-wing aircraft. Using spotters and cameras, they are looking to take enforcement action against those operating in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

If spotters notice animals by waterways, discolored or muddied appearing water, discolored soil around waterways, waterways without bordering vegetation or trampled banks along waterways, an on-ground inspection could be triggered.

Confrontation is not the right answer in this situation, Oveson said.

The EPA inspectors have made it clear that they will inspect private land to find problems, backed up by U.S. marshals if necessary.

If the inspectors show up at the door, Oveson added, it isnt necessarily bad. Most inspections, he said, dont result in fines. Those that do are isolated incidents.

When inspectors arrive it is best to have an open attitude and be willing to conduct a polite discussion, Oveson said.

A myth that should be discarded quickly is that only those with large amounts of land or large feeding operations are being surveyed.

Eileen Larkin of the Natural Resources Conservation Service remembers working in another part of the state, where a person with only a dozen head of cattle was having to do work to improve water quality.

And dont think just cattle. Oveson said those who pasture horses, sheep, goats and more exotic livestock should also keep an eye on any accessible water sources.

Enforcement of the Clean Water Act can be brought to bear on anyone who has animals and water on their property, Oveson said.

Reasonable people will look over their property, and if they have any questions or notice problems, will contact an agency for help, be it the OSU Extension Service, the model watershed, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, or the soil and water conservation district, Oveson said.

Voluntary compliance with Clean Water Act regulations, Oveson, Hendrickson and Larkin all stress, is the best possible action to take.

People are real nervous, Oveson said of landowners who worry about drawing the EPAs attention, as well they should be.

But nerves aside, Oveson, Hendrickson and Larkin look at whats been going on and offer hope. There has been a lot of work done regarding streamside improvements, and cooperation between landowners and various agencies has been growing.

Local agency staff recognize that many area landowners are not in strong financial positions, and that, again, is reason to take steps to address problems with the assistance of various state and federal programs.

Try as they might, Oveson said, without the cooperation of landowners there is little that can be done to prevent strict enforcement of Clean Water Act regulations.