CA Water Board Votes Unanimously for New Rules on Pollution from Agriculture

Just two days after the University of California at Davis released a highly anticipated report on nitrate contaminated groundwater and the agriculture industry’s culpability therein, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board Thursday unanimously approved a hotly contested set of rules aimed alleviating water pollution caused by farming.

But the new regulations won’t cover nitrates—at least for now.

The adopted plan is based on a three-tiered program. For the 3 percent of large farms that use pesticides, large quantities of fertilizer and operate near polluted waters will come under the greatest scrutiny. For most farms regulations will actually loosen, but beginning next year all farmers will have to prepare compliance reports and water quality plans that detail how they will control discharges of pesticides, herbicides and sediment.

But in an effort to encourage cooperation among farmers the board agreed to give the agricultural industry until 2015 to create a third-party coalition and plan to monitor so-called nutrient management, the application of fertilizers on crops. Synthetic fertilizers and animal manure are the major source of nitrates in groundwater, a growing problem that plagues farming communities with tainted drinking water.

In another concession to the agriculture industry, the board agreed to establish “nitrogen balance ratios” as benchmarks rather than enforceable standards for subset of the approximately 100 tier 3 farmers who grow nitrogen intensive crops like lettuce and broccoli. The nitrogen ratios reflect the area fertilized and the quantity of fertilizer used.

“We think we did a whole lot of compromising,” said Roger Briggs, executive officer for the water board.

Ironically, in spite of the severity of the nitrate problem detailed in the state Water Resources Control Board-commissioned report released Tuesday, none of the information could be introduced into the two-day water board hearing because it was a continuation of a previous meeting in September when the board didn’t have a quorum. Public comment for the meeting ended Aug. 1. Even if they report could have been entered into the record the board wouldn’t have had time to absorb it before the week’s meeting, Briggs said.

“We couldn’t mention the nitrate report at all,” said Jennifer Clary, program manager for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy group.

Neither environmentalists who supported greater regulation nor farmers who feared onerous new rules are entirely happy with the water board’s decision. Briggs said he would be surprised if at least one party didn’t appeal the decision. Any group that plans to do so has 30 days to submit an appeal.

In spite of the amendments, Briggs said the intent of the new regulatory program remained intact. He said his staff was willing to compromise on timetables and methodology, but not on water quality protection or public health.

“From that standpoint it’s a big win,” he said. “I think it’s way more effective than what we had which was basically nothing.”

Briggs also applauded the water board for standing up to what he said was the most intense political pressure he’s seen in his 40 year career. Five legislators or their representatives addressed the board and all sided with agricultural industry against the regulations. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), generally seen as an environmentalist, took the podium and urged the board to continue to work with the agricultural industry to find a mutually agreeable solution to water quality and avoid a “penalistic” approach that might drive farmers away.  Farr’s17th congressional district includes the Salinas Valley.

Clary said the board’s action was less than she had hoped for, but it should still be seen as progress because there will be water quality monitoring and data collection.

“We are moving forward,” she said.

About Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is a senior editor at MAKE magazine. He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series in production for PBS.
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