Farm water fight comes to Central Coast
Central Coast farmers are banding together to oppose what they call a “drastic and extreme” reworking of agricultural water rules.
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board regulates water in a seven-county swath of the coast that includes San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, as well as coastal areas farther north. The region produces the bulk of the nation’s lettuce and strawberries, a fruit that brings $344.6 million to Santa Barbara County alone.
In February, the water board unveiled an expansion of existing water rules that could require many Central Coast farmers to clean up or eliminate runoff from their land in as little as two years. Within six years, farmers would have to come up with plans for preventing pesticides and fertilizers from reaching groundwater supplies and restoring streamside habitat to buffer out pollutants.
“It’s the most drastic and extreme regulation directed at agriculture on the Central Coast,” said Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. “You’re looking at disrupting the entire food chain of the United States if they try to impose these standards.”
Quandt is part of a coalition of dozens of agribusinesses and advocacy groups that have put together an alternative proposal they plan to present to the water board in early May.
Environmentalists and the water board’s staff say the rules are needed to clean up pesticide and fertilizer pollution. In the lower Santa Maria River watershed, there are 15 streams. All 15 are listed as polluted by state regulators.
Agricultural chemicals have made groundwater undrinkable without costly treatment, especially in the heavily cultivated Salinas Valley. Two hundred of 700 municipal wells in the region don’t meet drinking water standards, according to Angela Schroeter, the program manger for the new rules. The situation is potentially worse in private wells, which are shallower and catch more runoff.
“It is estimated there are 12,000 private wells in Monterey County,” Schroeter said in an e-mail. “The safety of the drinking water from those wells is unknown and not regulated.”
Right now, water is tested at 50 sites around the seven-county district and overseen by a nonprofit group. The new water board rules would require individual farms to test their water and report to the board.
The farmers say that would impose costs out of proportion with any gains in water quality and want a collective measuring system like the one already in place.
“You can only pile so much weight on a guy’s back before he falls down,” said Kevin Merrill, president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. “That’s what’s going to happen here.”
Nathan Alley, a staff attorney with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, said the mandate for individual testing would let clean farmers off the hook faster.
“The more that people can demonstrate that their own practices at their own farms are not contributing to water quality problems, the less of a burden there will be on them,” Alley said. “That really should be an exercise in gathering data you already have or you should want to know.”
Under the proposed water board rules, using some chemicals on crops three days before or after rainstorms would become illegal. Restrictions on pesticides and fertilizers within 1,000 feet of streams would come into play.
“One thousand feet is three football fields. You lose a lot of ground,” Merrill said. “What this is, is a taking of property. We didn’t think they had the power to do that.”
Farmer advocates also worry the rules will conflict with food safety practices dictated by big grocery chain buyers. The regulations would require vegetated habitat around fields that touch streams.
Quandt said buffer zones can attract wildlife, which brings with it the risk of fecal contaminants, thought to be the source of bacteria during a 2006 E-coli scare traced to fresh spinach.
“They tell you, ‘We’re not going to buy lettuce from this field unless you get rid of this habitat,’ ” Quandt said. “The growers are really in a tough situation.”
The farmers plan to submit a counter proposal to the water board on May 12 in San Luis Obispo. It aims to leave pesticide harm to aquatic animals to state and federal regulators, leave most groundwater to county regulators and let farms tailor water testing more narrowly.
The farmers’ proposal also contains saber rattling that could presage a legal challenge to the water board. Because farmers can’t control what flows downstream onto their land, their proposal argues that requiring them to bear the costs of dealing with a neighbor’s water without compensation violates their property rights. “[T]he concept is not only a taking of property but clearly inequitable and discriminatory in its potential enforcement,” the proposal says.
Farm advocates and environmentalists will have a chance to speak up before the rules are made final. The hearing is May 12, and the time and date will be announced on the water board’s Web site at www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralcoast/.