Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 8, Issue 1 - June, 2015


Mediating Socio-political Barriers to Water Quality Improvement in Surface Water on Grazed Wildlands

Hudson, T.D., Associate Professor, Washington State University Extension


Science, policy, and practice intersect in the conflict over livestock influence on wildland water quality. Constructive solutions to nonpoint source water quality problems are elusive, in part, because of the socio-political differences between environmental regulators and livestock farmers. These differences pose a challenge for boundary spanning organizations and individuals seeking to create or apply scientific knowledge and social order in a manner beneficial to all of the principal actors. This article details philosophical, legal, practical, and technical barriers preventing behavior change and water quality improvement and the relative success of Cooperative Extension as a boundary organization.


Acute and growing social and legal conflict over regulation of non-point source pollution in Washington State has hampered proactive efforts to improve water quality in streams dominated by grazed watersheds. Livestock farmers caught in the conflict over water quality experience legal risk, reduced quality of life, and financial risk. Nonpoint source pollution is “pollution that is not released through pipes but rather originates from multiple sources over a relatively large area” (EPA, 2010).  This diffuse pollution is notoriously difficult to regulate. Because causality is often not definable, coercing behavior is problematic, and most efforts to address nonpoint source (NPS) pollution rely on promoting voluntary practices. Washington State University Extension, in partnership with the National Riparian Service Team and conservation districts, developed a water quality risk assessment outreach program to focus livestock managers and regulators on the drivers of riparian function and water quality, riparian and upland health rather than sporadically collected water quality monitoring data (Hall, 2014). The goal of this long-term outreach has been to influence both regulatory philosophy and farmer behavior. Cooperative Extension has operated as a classic boundary spanner organization (Guston, 2001) (Carr & Wilkinson, 2005), facilitating social interaction in the policy/science/social conflict of water quality in grazing areas. The boundary-spanning role is likely even more critical toward behavior change outcomes in natural resource conflict than the land grant university’s role as source and interpreter of scientific information.

Boundary spanner organizations and individuals “exist at the frontier of the two relatively different social worlds of politics and science”, interacting with principal actors from both sides of the boundary, in order to create a “site of . . . co-production, the simultaneous production of knowledge and social order” (Guston, 2001, p. 401). They have three defining characteristics: “1) they help negotiate the boundary between science and decision-making, 2) they exist between two distinct social worlds with definite responsibility and accountability to both sides of the boundary, and 3) they provide a space to legitimize the use of boundary objects” (Cash, 2001, p. 439). Boundary objects are items that allow communication, “plastic enough to adapt to local needs . . . yet robust enough to maintain common identity across” boundaries (Star & Griesemer, 1989, p. 393). A scientific or conceptual model is a good example of a boundary object. Boundary-spanning individuals are called to exercise cultural awareness in order to see past surface words and gestures to the underlying beliefs and values which are the true seat of behavior; they then exercise diplomacy to bridge this cultural chasm toward a mutually beneficial end.


The challenges to productive social interaction between environmental regulatory authorities and livestock farmers are numerous. Roots of the conflict are less about differences of opinion over environmental outcomes and more about a clash of worldviews. In fact, some common agreement over environmental outcomes was the genesis for creation of a key boundary object, a water quality risk assessment for grazing areas produced by WSU Extension. This document, a scientific model of sorts, facilitated cross-cultural communication and progress toward behavior change. Detailed here are some of the substantive and socially significant barriers which serve to define the subcultural boundary lines, lines grounded in beliefs and values, not just varying interpretations of scientific information.


Environmental regulators often have little experience with or familial affinity to the agriculture subculture. This results in a strong intrinsic social barrier between subcultures and individuals prior to formal, personal contact between a livestock farmer and regulator which manifests as interpersonal conflict and failure to persuade the farmer toward behavior change (the entire purpose of the contact).

Farmers have a different view of property rights than environmental regulator community, a view that resists being coerced to manage private land toward public benefit (Caldwell, 1974). They do not resist generating public benefits such as ecological goods and services – they resist coercion of production. Use of surface water is both a public and private good. Landowners have the right to use surface water, within the boundaries of each state’s water law, for private benefit, such as irrigating crops and watering stock; but surface water is also a public good, and users have the responsibility to protect the quality of water for other users.

Farmers believe that they are granted wide legal latitude in the use of private property and are understandably resistant to efforts to curtail certain uses such as riparian grazing or watering stock directly from a stream, a practice which is also protected by state law in Washington (RCW 90.22.040). The regulatory community may see land use more like a (Western) water right, in which the water right holder does not own water but is permitted by the state to put such water to beneficial use. This idea of land use as a usufructuary right dates to the conservationists of the 1800s but gained popularity in the 1970s (Caldwell, 1974). Farmers generally hold a Jeffersonian vision of property ownership in which the “landowner has a special right to appropriate the products and benefits from the land by virtue of the labor invested in it”; further, “one of the attractions of rural life is the freedom to do what one wants with one’s possessions” (Booth, 2002, p. 142). Farmers believe that they bear responsibility to take care of the land, that care is necessary for sustained profit in agricultural enterprise, and that the owner of land can make better decisions about the proper use of land than the government. The regulatory community, generally, feels that Jefferson’s time has come and gone and that it is in the public’s good to place reasonable restrictions on landowners’ actions. This social divide is real and extends beyond agriculture and environmental regulation. In January of 2015, “Eastern Washington newspapers paid attention [to splitting Washington State] when five of the region’s state representatives filed House Bill 1818 . . . ‘creating a task force to determine the impacts of adjusting the boundary lines of Washington to create two new states with one state east and one state west of the Cascade mountain range’” ( Ideological differences appear to be sharpening, although the idea of state division has been around for a long time.


Both state and federal laws provide support for nonpoint source regulation, but Washington State’s pollution control law is worded in absolute terms: “It shall be unlawful for any person to throw, drain, run, or otherwise discharge into any of the waters of this state, or to cause, permit or suffer to be thrown, run, drained, allowed to seep or otherwise discharged into such waters any organic or inorganic matter that shall cause or tend to cause pollution of such waters according to the determination of the department, as provided for in this chapter” (RCW 90.48.080). This effectively establishes a legal basis for a zero tolerance policy, even though zero is rarely attainable in a wildland setting. Adding to the difficulty of both regulation and compliance with this law is the highly variable nature of one of the key pollutants, fecal coliform bacteria. Stream sampling and water quality testing is valid for establishing that a given pollutant exceeds regulatory thresholds in a given water body. But fecal coliform bacteria sampling is too variable to determine causality between high levels of bacteria in a surface water body and the owner of a specific stream reach. These bacteria are shed by the digestive tract of all warm-blooded animals (and some cold-blooded animals) and are used as an indicator for the possible presence of pathogens. Fecal coliforms are ordinarily benign with respect to human health. Water quality testing is not accurate enough to either assign blame or prove innocence definitively. In recognition of this problem the regulator attempted to simplify site evaluation by (sometimes) using presence of livestock in the stream zone as prima facie evidence of a discharge of pollutants. The logic follows the letter of the law: if an animal touches surface water, fecal material comes in contact with water; the law clearly states zero is the standard and that simple discharge rather than impairment is the regulatory nexus (Lemire v. State of Washington, 2013). Under this thinking, a single animal in a stream is a violation of state law and if the regulator chooses not to enforce this standard he/she is either being lenient or negligent. Agricultural organizations expressed the need for a more accurate way to define the real risk of significant pollutant discharge from grazing areas and winter feeding areas because livestock farmers reject this rigid and simplistic interpretation of the law. The relationship between livestock management and water quality is mediated by the effects, short- and long-term, of grazing on the riparian zone and upland ecosystem (Hall, et al, 2014) and is not the primary subject of this paper. This particular science/policy boundary remains highly controversial across the Western U.S.


Because NPS water quality improvement relies on voluntary practices, the regulatory authority must attempt to persuade livestock farmers to change behavior. Livestock farmers are resistant to the idea that normal grazing activities on agricultural and wildland ecosystems can result in water quality impairment. They perceive that livestock-related pollutants such as sediment, bacteria, nitrogen, and phosphorus may not be an ecological problem at low levels, i.e., do not cause either riparian or aquatic ecosystem dysfunction because they are natural substances which are only a problem when they are present in the wrong amounts or in the wrong place. Farmers recognize that the same low levels may exceed regulatory thresholds established to protect human health. We may call this the chemical cleanliness v. ecological function dilemma. The environmental regulatory community believes that the presence of livestock is synonymous with manure and erosion, both of which represent pollution and are illegal according to the letter of the law. Manure contains fecal bacteria and the macronutrients nitrogen and phosphorus; the physical presence of animals has the potential to cause erosion; state law requires clean water and prohibits anthropogenic pollution; under the chemical cleanliness paradigm the obvious solution is to restrict stock access to surface water.

Grazed Intermountain West riparian zone

Figure 1. A grazed Intermountain West riparian zone

The ecological function paradigm holds that water quality is a lagging indicator of watershed function and that solutions to specific pollutants must begin with restoring biological processes that lead to watershed function. A growing body of research shows the direct link between ecological function and water quality and while the concept of biological assessment is not novel, its application specifically to water quality improvement is relatively new (Aron, Hall, Philbin, & Shafer, 2013). In fact, the Clean Water Act uses the language of ecological function. The objective of the Clean Water Act, found in section 101, is "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." Further, “EPA shall . . . develop and publish information on methods for establishing and measuring water quality criteria . . . on other bases than pollutant-by-pollutant, including biological monitoring and assessment methods” (Clean Water Act, Section 304(a)8).

This tension between chemical cleanliness and ecological function perspectives is one the principal actors will continue to struggle with. WSU Extension has aggressively argued that focus on ecological function will result in pathogen reduction, which benefits all parties.

Related to the cleanliness v. function dichotomy is the passive restoration v. active management dichotomy represented again by environmental regulators v. farmers. One school of thought, often held by environmental regulators, is that if one removes a degrading human influence from a given disturbed ecosystem, that ecosystem will return to a stable, improved, more botanically diverse, and functional state. The active management school of thought holds that healing a disturbed and damaged ecosystem requires identifying the current state of that ecosystem and determining what ecological processes must be manipulated to set a new trajectory toward a desired future condition or specific vegetation composition and condition at the soil-plant interface. Farmers ascribe to some version of active management, even if it is not articulated this way. Research indicates that both methodologies may be effective under different circumstances (McIver & Starr, 2001).

Livestock farmers make decisions on riparian management based on a large suite of factors: livestock movement logistics, pasture design and limitations, habitat objectives, water supply and timing, forage conditions on adjacent uplands, and more. The regulator typically believes regulatory considerations trump all others. This is confounded, however, by the real regulatory and scientific uncertainty as to what conditions and practices contribute significantly to pollution in a non-point setting.

Willow recovery on gravel barFigure 2. Willows are recovering in this grazed riparian zone in response to changes in timing and duration of livestock use, resulting in enhanced sediment capture, channel development, and stream access to the floodplain.

Farmers who would otherwise make management changes to improve water quality are unwilling to implement changes because of the social conflict and the feeling that such change is coerced. In general, farmers gravitate toward bottom-up thinking, in which observations lead to hypotheses that can then be tested. Regulators (and often scientists) tend to operate with top-down thinking, where they are the holder of knowledge and others are expected to acknowledge their authority and receive their knowledge (Reid & Fernandez-Gimenez, 2015). They assume the truth of abstract ideas and operate from that basis.


Further, the list of disciplines involved in water quality improvement is deep and wide. A comprehensive understanding of the relationships among livestock management, upland and riparian ecosystem function, and water quality parameters involves gaining some mastery in hydrology, riparian ecology, limnology, silviculture, animal science, terrestrial plant ecology, environmental chemistry, microbiology, wildlife biology, soil science, animal behavior, and law – the list could continue. Any one actor on either side of the boundary in this conflict will typically have mastery in only one or two of these subject matter areas, although farmers, called “residents” or “practitioners” by Robin Reid of UC-Davis, will often dabble in them all, since practitioners gravitate toward knowledge that is practical, knowledge that allows action where one’s understanding is incomplete.


WSU Extension focused on persuading instead of informing in order to change behavior in both groups through an extended period of interaction with producers and regulators grounded in mutual trust and common goals. It should be noted that numerous organizations are part of this ongoing process of solution-seeking, including some that also fit the role of a boundary spanner, such as the Washington Conservation Commission, individual conservation districts, and agricultural advocacy organizations. WSU Extension is unique in that the institution, by definition, is tasked with creating and interpreting and applying new scientific information (Cash, 2001).

A mostly unplanned sequence of events led eventually to favorable outcomes. In response to farmer demand, Hudson acquired a grant from the Western Center for Risk Management Education which funded a series of workshops conducted in partnership with the National Riparian Service Team to provide in-depth in-field training on the relationships among livestock grazing practices, riparian condition, and water quality. These attracted an even mix of agency natural resource professionals and livestock farmers. Relationships established through these workshop spun off numerous local landowner meetings on specific management practices to improve upland and riparian condition and thereby improve  water quality. Further, a regular meeting with a few conservation districts and key regulatory personnel resulted in WSU Extension’s creation of a water quality risk assessment for grazing areas which characterized positive and negative conditions and practices and relied on risk management language which accurately reflected scientific reality with respect to nonpoint source pollution. That reality is that there is rarely a distinct per pollutant threshold which can be established for stream impairment, that individual landowner practices couldn’t be accurately correlated with instream pollutant levels even if a threshold were clear, and that the only effective strategy to combat degraded water quality is to combat degraded stream condition through evaluating grazing management practices and riparian condition holistically. The solution, according to Dr. Sherman Swanson of University of Nevada-Reno, is to ensure one’s management includes “more good than bad.” The process of shepherding this risk assessment approach through informal regulatory agency approval was key to building trust with the agency as well as building mutual understanding of the situation, relevant scientific developments, and possible sustainable grazing practices. 


The tenor of dialogue has become more cooperative, both sides of the boundary have acknowledged the complexity of this issue, and both have embraced the necessity of site-specific solutions. The content of dialogue and newly drafted regulatory guidance allows that well-managed livestock grazing in stream zones may be sustainable if done well, where ‘done well’ is results-oriented, i.e., sustainable grazing is that which maintains riparian proper functioning condition and upland health.

 Solutions included:

  • Helping farmers understand economic consequences of riparian degradation or improvement;
  • Encouraging all parties to think in terms of risk assessment rather than violation or no violation – this applies to both site conditions and livestock management practices;
  • Encouraging riparian function as the target of management and voluntary incentive programs;
  • Advocating withholding regulatory action except in the case of egregious pollution where significant quantities of pollution are visibly contaminating surface water.

The regulatory authority has advertised in public meetings ten key changes to their approach to watershed assessment and landowner regulation that reflects recognition of the complexity in management and environmental conditions. Further, their list of options for solving water quality problems associated with grazing activities has widened to include more than just exclusion fence.


Guston (2001, p. 401) states that “the success of a boundary organization is determined by principals on either side of the boundary. A successful boundary organization will . . . succeed in pleasing two sets of principals and remains stable to external forces astride the internal instability at the actual boundary.” Extension, specifically, is fulfilling its original purpose when it “augments the creation and transfer of usable knowledge but also . . . facilitates the coordination of science and decision-making across boundaries of scale or levels of organization.” Surface water quality improvement on grazed lands is a challenge requiring successful boundary-spanning, creating a “third space” in which innovation and problem-solving occur (Guston, 1999).


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