A “perfect storm” of regulatory proportions seems to be on California agriculture’s horizon, but all hope has not been given up. Not yet at least.
The recent Western Plant Health Regulatory Conference in Sacramento highlighted some of the storms on agriculture’s horizon. Some of those include the emerging regulations related to irrigated lands throughout California. A panel discussion on the matter included two state regulators and two growers.
For years the over use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, plus a complicated mix of naturally-occurring issues related to nitrogen in the soil have state regulators focused on one of the key ingredients to a successful harvest for growers.
“Nitrate is one of the state’s most widespread groundwater contaminants,” said Monica Barricarte, an environmental scientist with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (CCRWQCB).
Barricarte cites a 2012 UC Davis nitrate report which blames fertilizers and animal waste applied to croplands as the primary source of such contamination.
Barricarte painted a grim picture for growers and industry leaders at the conference. As one of several examples, she pointed to San Lucas, a tiny community on California’s Central Coast which can no longer use its city wells because of high levels of nitrates in the water. Residents there have been forced to use bottled water for two years while a cleanup and abatement order requires an uninterrupted interim and long-term supply of drinking water.
The toxicity from agricultural pesticides is “among the highest in the state” in the Central Coast region, Barricarte said.
Report illustrates toxicity
A 2010 state report on the toxicity of California waterways says that Central Coast streams have the highest percentage of toxic sites in the state. Of those, 22 percent are classified as “highly toxic.”
Joe Karkoski, the program manager of the irrigated lands regulatory program at the Central Valley Water Board, painted a slightly more pragmatic approach when he suggested that state regulators are “very aware of our regulations and the potential cost to agriculture.”
Still, growers are rightly worried as regulators continue to press for stricter controls and enforcement.
Kay Mercer is president of KMI, a consulting firm that provides services to assist and advise growers of water management improvements. She works with growers along California’s Central Coast region.
According to Mercer, she is booked solid with work related to helping growers comply with an onslaught of regulations that seek to reverse decades of damage.
“Growers don’t know what to invest in to meet the various requirements,” Mercer said during a panel discussion on the matter.
Mercer highlighted some history of the Central Coast region and looked at current problems facing the region from an agricultural standpoint.
For instance, Mercer said the tri-tiered ag order enacted by the water board looks solely at the use of nitrogen, and not its discharge into water sources. “This is a huge deal,” she said.
Crops all have varying rates of nitrogen uptake, she said, noting that many of the tools growers have to measure with are “crude, unsophisticated, partially effective and insufficient.”
Other problems Mercer sees include:
- The number of people qualified to take water samples in the region is lacking;
- Universities are not properly educating ag students of the regulatory challenges growers face and how to help growers address them; and
- Insurance companies are beginning to consider their own liabilities as they consider whether to insure growers.
Along with Barricarte, Karkoski and Mercer, the panel included Parry Klassen, a Central Valley peach grower and the executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. Mercer and Klassen gave agriculture’s perspective to regulations on irrigated lands in California.
Klassen represents a coalition of agricultural interests organized to collectively address state agricultural regulations. Formed similarly to that of a cooperative, the East SJ Water Quality Coalition is the first of several ag coalitions in the state to develop a water quality plan with state regulators.
“We are working hard to get ready for the new waste discharge requirements,” Klassen said, noting some praise for state water board officials.
“We negotiated our way through these regulations,” Klassen continued. “We have to give credit to the regional board in that they are very responsive when we provide scientific argument that something they are doing doesn’t make sense. They are often willing to change their approach when we have the proof.”
Studies cost money
Member dues for Klassen’s coalition are collected to administer a group permit on behalf of members in order to comply with the California Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.
While membership in the coalition is voluntary, the state will regulate growers regardless of whether they belong to a coalition, Klassen said. The advantage of the coalition approach, says Klassen, is the ability to pool funds and help members achieve regulatory compliance by funding cooperatively what no individual farmer can fund on his own.
“We’re spending over $250,000 on what we call a major data dump to create a large report that determines our vulnerable areas,” Klassen said.
“The water board is a very technically oriented organization,” he continued. “You don’t come in and bluff them with information. We make sure when we hire people to do these studies we use high value and high expertise people.”
While the coalition approach spreads out the cost and allows for better scientific studies, it is not without significant cost to the grower. Membership in Klassen’s coalition costs $4 an acre, double what it did just a year ago.
“We lost a number of our members when we did that,” he said. “But we have huge mandates and over a million acres of land to cover. There is a lot of water for us to monitor.”
The work ahead of Klassen and other growers is extremely labor-intensive. All growers, regardless of membership in the coalition, will be required to complete a farm evaluation, complete a nitrogen management plan and develop a sediment and erosion control plan. Growers outside of the coalition will have to do all this on their own.
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