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Environmentalists, farmers clash over water quality rules

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Water quality regulators in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions are weeks away from voting on the first comprehensive requirements governing groundwater quality under farms. Farmers are balking at the rules, but environmental groups say they aren't nearly strong enough to protect drinking water from the threat of nitrates and other toxins.

Nitrates are the most ubiquitous groundwater contaminant in California and across the U.S. According to an investigation by California Watch, millions of Californians have been exposed to unsafe levels of nitrates in their drinking water – a problem left virtually unchecked by public agencies responsible for protecting water quality in California.

A report from the Pacific Institute last week revealed that in the San Joaquin Valley alone, 35 percent the residents are dogged by serious nitrate problems in their drinking water. And scientists say the problem is growing.

It’s no coincidence that the most nitrate-impacted regions of the state are also the ones with the longest agricultural legacy. Fertilizers contribute more nitrogen to the ground than any other source. When fertilizer is over-applied, the excess nutrients can enter the groundwater. Removing them is impossible for small communities that can’t afford expensive water treatment plants.

Until now, farmers have been able to apply fertilizer to their fields without addressing the impacts on groundwater. Although they are required to report pesticide use to the state, they aren't required to report nutrients like nitrates – even if they turned up in a neighbor’s well.

That’s going to change if new rules are passed. On April 7, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider the first comprehensive groundwater quality rules [PDF] for irrigated agriculture, which includes everything from vineyards to lettuce fields. Under the plan, farms deemed most susceptible to nitrate problems would have to craft a step-by-step program to show how they’re addressing the problem – by using less fertilizer, for instance, or planting cover crops.

Regulators estimate that out of 7 million irrigated acres of land in the Central Valley, between 2.5 million and 3 million acres would fall under the “highest threat” category. Areas where very little is known about groundwater quality are also considered a high threat. Some types of farms, like organic farms, would receive almost no regulation.

April’s vote will focus on approving a “framework” for specific rules to be adopted later; the rules won’t take effect for three years. Yet the proposal has managed to please neither farmers nor environmentalists.

Objections from farmers and regional farm bureaus have mostly focused on the cost of complying with the new rules, including the cost of joining an agricultural coalition that will help them fill out their paperwork and monitor groundwater.

Environmental groups say the proposal falls short of what’s needed to stop the spread of nitrates. More than 20 groups have signed a letter to the Central Valley Water Board calling the program “toothless” because it lacks the kind of real accountability and enforcement measures they say are overdue.

They point out that since groundwater sampling isn’t required on farms, it will be difficult to tell whether nitrate levels are going up or down. Farmers also aren’t required to tell regulators how much fertilizer they’re applying.

“This program doesn’t to anything to restore groundwater quality or mitigate the impacts it’s having on communities,” said Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center in Visalia.

Firestone would like to see a requirement where, if farmers are found to be polluting their neighbors’ drinking water with nitrates, they are responsible for providing them with clean water to drink. That condition is in fact part of a different set of rules for irrigated agriculture that, coincidentally, is being considered by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Like the Central Valley’s proposal, the Central Coast intends to regulate nitrates in groundwater for the first time. Unlike the Central Valley, the Central Coast Regional Water Board makes a point of acknowledging the connection between farm operations and the impacts on drinking water problems next door.

A staff report [PDF] states, “The threat to rural homeowners from nitrates in domestic wells is the most important and challenging issue the Water Board and stakeholders are facing.” The report defends the staff’s controversial recommendation to require groundwater sampling on every farm at least twice a decade.

The Central Coast can afford stricter rules because it’s a much smaller farming region than the Central Valley – 3,000 farms as opposed to 35,000, contends Joe Karkoski, manager of the irrigated lands regulatory program at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in Sacramento. His department estimated that it might need to double its staff just to stay on top of all the paperwork the new regulations would generate.

“We have a couple hundred different crop types. The methods and approaches for figuring out what’s needed depends on the crop types,” said Karkoski. “We’ll work with the ag community to come up with the mechanisms that make sense.”

 

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