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Wheat fields in May overlooking the Snake River towards Lower Granite Dam.
Photo by Kim McCabe

WestBred

POLICY

Introducing Laura Watson!

Meet the Washington State Department of Ecology's new director

April 2020

At the tail end of 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee named Laura Watson to the director’s position at the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). Previously, Watson had served as the senior assistant attorney general in the Ecology Division of the Attorney General’s Office. In that position, she provided advice and representation to Ecology’s 10 environmental programs and to the agency’s administration.

According to a press release from the Governor’s Office, Watson has advised on a wide array of environmental issues including cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site; toxics reduction strategies; protection of the state’s Clean Water Act authority against federal intrusion; and options for achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Watson earned her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law. She lives in West Olympia with her husband, Dan, who is a professor of mechanical engineering at St. Martin’s University, and a daughter.

Watson replaced Maia Bellon who was appointed in 2013.

During their annual Olympia Days trip in January, wheat growers were able to meet with Watson and talk to her about wheat industry issues and priorities. Wheat Life reached out to Watson and asked her to answer some questions so readers could get to know her a little better. Here are her answers with very minor editing.

Your legal background seems to be more in social justice, not agriculture. How does that translate into leading a state regulating agency that works closely with the state’s growers and producers?

People across Washington—farmers, residents, visitors—deserve clean air, water and land, which is why I see environmental protection as an important component of social justice. In order to solve social justice or environmental problems, we need to bring together a broad range of partners and ensure that we have as many minds as possible at the table coming up with solutions.

I was an assistant attorney general for the past 21 years and spent 16 of those supporting the Department of Ecology. During that time, I worked with every environmental program and was trained well by Ecology staff on all kinds of things, including the issues affecting our agriculture community.

As I become more grounded in my role, I’ll be eager to get out there and see for myself how Washington’s agriculture industry operates.

What are some of the most pressing issues facing Ecology right now?

There are so many issues and ongoing needs, and the answer depends in part on what region of the state we’re in. Water availability for all uses continues to be a big focus east of the Cascades, although water availability is also an issue in Western Washington. And prevention of air and water pollution is something we’re always working on.

We can’t face down any of these issues on our own.

As part of our effort to identify and apply practices that support healthy farms while meeting clean water standards, we’ve been working with the Voluntary Clean Water Guidance for Agriculture Advisory Group.

One key component of the guidance we’re creating is to provide flexibility for growers, because we’ve learned from our agricultural partners that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Our first chapter focuses on tillage practices and residue management. Once complete, we’ll use this guidance to make funding decisions and inform cleanup plans, as well as provide technical assistance, education, and outreach.

Another pressing issue, of course, is climate change. In Washington, climate change will cause increasingly significant environmental and economic destruction to our water supplies, water quality, forests and industries across the state. We need to take bold, scientifically based and economically grounded action to reduce our impact.

Climate change resiliency is also an important component of this, whether it’s drought or flooding or wildfires. The recent floods in several Washington communities demonstrate the need to help prevent damage from happening, as well as provide assistance when it does occur. One way we do this is through our Floodplains by Design program, which partners with the Nature Conservancy to fund projects that reduce flood hazards while restoring the natural functions of state rivers and their floodplains.

This program is only successful because of collaboration between tribal agencies, government agencies and private landowners. One of my top priorities is to continue supporting alliances like this.

What are your long-term goals for the agency?

Just a couple months into the position, I’m continuing to get out there and listen to industry groups and different organizations about what my focus should be. That said, here are a few areas I plan to emphasize in my role:

• Maintaining our strong existing partnerships and forming new ones.

• Communicating effectively about our work—not just what we do but why it matters in a way that everyone can understand.

• Making sure that Ecology remains a workplace of choice for environmental professionals.

• Making measurable progress on our biggest environmental challenges, including the challenges identified above.

As the leader of an agency that is tasked with enforcing regulations that can sometimes seem overly burdensome to the ag community, how do you plan to reach out and interact with the industry?

First, know that I’m here to listen. I’m fortunate to have already met with lots of farmers, ranchers and producers during my first few weeks on the job—including wheat growers—and I’m learning about the biggest issues and opportunities facing your industries. I also learned that one bushel of wheat makes 420 cinnamon buns!

We approach our regulatory duty thoughtfully and carefully, because our agency’s core mission isn’t to enforce regulations. It’s to protect, preserve and enhance the environment for current and future generations. We stand the best chance of accomplishing that mission if we all work together, and we have the technical expertise and funding to help.

I plan to get out to Walla Walla in early June for the all ag legislative tour and will have many other opportunities to interact with the agriculture community between then and now.

Do you think the Agriculture and Water Quality Advisory Committee has achieved its goals, or is there more work to do?

It’s a big priority of mine to continue with the Agriculture and Water Quality Advisory Committee. This group provides a place for us to share and be transparent about our work at Ecology. I really believe it is helping us learn to speak each other’s language, but of course, there’s always more work to be done to further improve communication.

Agriculture as a whole is tremendously important to our state economy, and—as you’re well aware—family wheat farms are one of the largest drivers of Eastern Washington jobs. Not to mention that all Washingtonians benefit from being able to purchase fresh, locally produced agricultural products at our grocery stores and farmers’ markets. We want to continue hearing your ideas on how we can maintain this strong economy that’s supported and enhanced by a beautiful, clean environment.

What do you want wheat growers to know about yourself?

I grew up in Pittsburgh and spent my early years in an urban environment, but I love the outdoors and Washington is my home. I’ve lived my adult life here—getting my law degree from the University of Washington and spending my entire legal career in public service.

Our daughter, Violet, who recently became a teenager, was born here. She and her generation provide me with very personal reminders of why we do what we do at Ecology. On a side note, she’s also an avid baker, so we go through a lot of wheat in our household.

I look forward to getting out of Olympia to tour some of the projects unique to your regions and seeing more of the diverse landscape across our state. Know that I’m dedicated to doing all I can to maintain the positive relationships our staff has already formed with folks. We couldn’t be successful in our work without these bonds.