California trade groups, growers appeal water regulations

05/01/2012 09:51:00 AM
Mike Hornick

SALINAS, Calif. — The California Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of trade associations and grower-shippers appealed new water rules requiring growers to monitor fertilizer and pesticide runoff and increased buffer zones.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted the rules in March.

Opponents in the agricultural industry want collective monitoring overseen by third-party audits. Such arrangements are in effect in the state’s Central Valley and in Ventura and San Diego counties, said Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau.

Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms and Salinas-based R C Farms have appealed the new rules. Separate but coordinated appeals were filed at the State Water Resources Control Board April 16 by the California Farm Bureau and branches in seven counties, and by Western Growers Association with two grower-shipper associations.

Three environmental groups — Monterey Coastkeeper, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper — also appealed. Among other objections, they contend the new rules lack firm targets on nitrate discharges.

Agricultural interests have called the rules onerous and expensive. The price tag on individual monitoring and the buffers is unclear, but some expect it to be steep.

At a hearing in 2011, Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen said the draft rule could take several thousand acres of farm land out of production and reduce county crop values by $100 million to $167 million annually.

“Our main concern is that the regulations don’t consider things we’ve already done to decrease runoff and become more efficient in our operations,” said Dale Huss, vice president of artichoke production at Ocean Mist Farms. “We’ve reduced our fertilizer use, we use recycled water and do a number of things that aren’t taken into account.”

“I don’t know the cost (of monitoring) but I’ve heard a range of numbers up to $600 an acre, which could put some growers out of business,” Huss said. “We support clean water. But the reality is the science is not there yet to clean up these areas. These are legacy nitrates; in most cases we don’t know where they’re coming from. Even environmentalists say it could take 40 to 60 years to see a reduction in groundwater nitrates.”

Salinas Valley growers also support improved water quality, said Abby Taylor-Silva, vice president of policy and communications at Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. “The issue is how you get it done,” she said. “We feel the coalition approach is a robust tool and hope it’s ultimately adopted.”

California Farm Bureau’s Merkley said the rules unjustifiably lay bigger burdens on larger growers.

“If you’re farming more than 500 acres or have certain inputs or commodities, the order bumps you into a higher tier with much greater requirements,” Merkley said. “Suppose you’ve got a 510-acre contiguous farming operation. To say that’s going to have more impact on water quality than 510 1-acre operations is absurd.”

Larger growers are able to spread costs around for water quality programs, he said.

“Size has no bearing on how well you’re managing an operation,” Merkley said.

California Farm Bureau is developing estimates on the cost of monitoring for testimony before the state board, which could still be months away.

“In the Central Coast order, growers will have to pay for lab work individually in addition to coalition monitoring they may be doing, and that is cost prohibitive,” Merkley said. “If you’re in the top tier, you have to monitor at the edge of your field, which is extremely expensive. The only analogy I can give would be if the city of Salinas required each resident to monitor water on his property before it gets into the storm drain. The order develops reams of data and paper that will do little to improve water quality.”

Companies also object that an amendment included in the final rule was not made available during public comment at the March hearing. The amendment includes language drafted by a representative of Monterey Coastkeeper, Merkley said.



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