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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 30th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 43

Nitrogen and water: Growers and regulators push toward a future of sustainability

By CAMILLIA LANHAM

Shadows take up the space between rows of tarp-covered raised ground to the west of Highway 101. Darkness comes early this time of year, and the reflected sky turns the strips of black plastic into soft yellow rivers, highlighting row after row of soon-to-be-producing strawberry plants.

During the day, it’s easy to see the green of the clones that were recently planted in the fields north of the Santa Maria River Bridge. In a few months, field workers will be picking bright, red berries, but until then they will slowly feed the plants exactly what they need to grow.

Drip irrigation. Fertilizer. Pesticides. Fungicides. All while keeping the mineral content of the soil in mind. But what strawberries need to successfully grow to their commercially viable ends is complicated. It’s even more complicated now than it was 30 years ago.

The Sharer Brothers east of Santa Maria have been farming their 300 acres of crops—strawberries, raspberries, and broccoli—for at least that long. Randy Sharer said that when they first started sowing rows in 1984, things such as nitrates and pesticide were quantified in parts per million, which was considered an accurate measurement. Since then, science has zeroed in even more and now quantifies those substances in parts per tens of billions.


COVER ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA

The regulations governing how the Sharer Brothers’ crops are grown have also evolved to become increasingly complicated.

Science. Knowledge. Environmental concerns. Drought.

These two sides of the farming equation are stubbornly in opposition—and have a track record to prove it. But that conflict is starting to subside, albeit slightly, and regulators and farmers are attempting to work together to figure out what to do to protect surface water and groundwater.

To comply with regulations handed down in September 2013, the ag world is looking to get a handle on the nitrate concentrations in groundwater. Right now, all of the agricultural producers in Santa Maria and beyond are in the process of testing or have already tested the water in the domestic water wells and/or primary irrigation wells on their property. If the concentrations found in domestic wells are above drinking water standards, most producers are voluntarily providing an alternative source of drinking water to residents living on their properties.

Quantifying those concentrations is the preliminary goal; how to actually reduce nitrogen concentrations in groundwater supplies has yet to be decided.

“We’re all in this with the understanding that we need to improve the aquifers—the basins themselves,” Sharer said. “[The regulators’] understanding of farming—it’s simply not how it was five years ago or a decade ago or 30 years ago when my brother and I started farming.”

You see, farmers and regulators agree on one thing: They want to ensure a sustainable water supply for the future. What these two groups disagree on is how to make that happen.

A tall order

Sharer, like most of the folks in his industry, is matter of fact and straight to the point. The day before Christmas Eve, he sat in the conference room of the Grower-Shippers Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties in Guadalupe. With his arms crossed, he leaned back in his chair as he attempted to clarify what’s going on in the complex world of agricultural regulations.

He serves on the board of the Central Coast Groundwater Coalition (CCGC), a nonprofit that’s basically become the go between for a growing handful of producers and state regulators. The coalition is helping its members test the wells that need to be tested and follow through with compliance measures if those wells exceed “safe” levels of nitrogen for drinking water. It’s then compiling the information for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Non-coalition growers that fall under the regulations are still required to test on-farm domestic wells and comply with measures, but the individual producers work directly with the water board.

The well-testing requirements are due to the updated Agricultural Order adopted by California’s State Water Resources Control Board in 2013 through the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, which put into place many layers of regulations to govern water run-off and discharge from irrigated lands.

It’s a mouthful—and there’s a little bit more. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which, of course, also adopted the same set of regulations, is focusing on “priority water quality issues, such as pesticides and toxicity, nutrients, and sediments—especially nitrate impacts to drinking water sources,” according to the board’s website.

Nitrates have been on regulators’ radar for decades, according to Matt Keeling with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Keeling said there was a study conducted in 1990 and another one finished in 2008, testing nitrate concentrations in groundwater. The two studies had the same results.

“It’s bad, agriculture is the main culprit, and it’s going to get worse,” Keeling said, adding that the results of the last study prompted the water board to start looking at revising the Ag Order. “Quite frankly, we’ve known about this problem for decades.”

Nitrate numbers

There are more than 40,000 domestic wells in the Central Coast region. Before the coalition started testing wells, the water board had only been able to collect voluntary data for 3.7 percent of them, or approximately 1,627 wells. Keeling said the water board has been trying to get a region-wide water-testing program in place for several years.

Of those previously sampled wells, the highest measured nitrate concentration for an on-farm well was in Monterey County at 13 times the drinking water standard for nitrates. Approximately 47 percent—or 56 out of 118—of the on-farm domestic wells previously sampled in the Santa Maria Valley were in excess of the nitrate drinking water standard.

The updated Ag Order was put into to place in part to make sure the people drinking water with excess nitrate levels were notified. Keeling said it can be especially hard on babies and older people to ingest too much nitrate. One of the problems linked to such consumption is known as a blue-baby syndrome: Babies start to turn blue because oxygen isn’t getting where it needs to go in their bodies, but Keeling said there’s only been one well-documented case within the Central Coast region, and that was 15 years ago. He also noted that cancer and other health problems could potentially result from taking in too much nitrate.

“To try to link it specifically to nitrate or nitrite has been difficult,” he said.

The coalition started sampling wells in the Santa Maria Valley in November 2013, and will continue to sample more as it adds members to its ranks. So far, the coalition has accumulated data on 309 previously untested wells in the Santa Maria Valley; of those, 74 were domestic wells. Results show that 43 were in excess of the drinking water standard for nitrates.

More wells were tested through December, but the coalition is still waiting on those results.

For now, producers with wells in excess of the standard are required only to notify residents using those wells. They aren’t required to provide an alternative source, but most of the coalition’s members are doing so anyway because it’s the right thing to do, Sharer said.

“[The Central Coast Groundwater Coalition] has encouraged their members to go above and beyond the requirements to provide that alternative source [of drinking water],” he said, adding that it’s usually either bottled water or from a reverse osmosis system.

Eventually, those growers will also be expected to submit a plan to the water board on how the water in those wells will eventually get cleaned up and on how they’ll reduce nitrate loading into surface and groundwater supplies.

“We don’t expect them to fix the problem overnight because it’s not a problem that can be fixed overnight,” Keeling said. “We were seen as alarmist with regard to the problem. … What we’re asking them to do can be difficult, and in a lot of cases farmers are already doing what they need to be doing. It’s probably going to take a generation or more until we get to where we need to be.”

Privacy vs. public information

The groundwater coalition came to be in 2013 and was originally started to help growers in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara counties. Members pay a fee per acre to join, and the coalition acts as their voice to the water board, tests the wells they want tested, and compiles the data for them. As it gains strength through membership, the coalition is extending its reach southward.

Perry Klassen, the coalition’s executive director, gave an update at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s November 2014 meeting. The crux of the discussion was about whether the information the coalition collects about individual wells should be made available to the public—or, more specifically, whether the notification letters sent to property residents where wells were found to exceed the nitrate standard and the exact locations of those wells should be made available to the public.

All of the data collected by the coalition through its well-testing efforts is submitted to the water board, but the question is whether the specifics should be passed on further. The coalition said no, and still says no: Detailed information should be shared between growers and the water board, but beyond that, there are privacy issues.

Klassen told the Sun that the growers are concerned about what certain parties would do with that information, such as holding a single grower accountable for a problem that’s manifested itself over 50 to 100 years of land use.

“We’re worried that someone’s going to come sue you for poisoning your farmworkers,” he said. “There’s just this fear among agricultural producers that will happen.”

Plus, he added, why would farmers do nothing about a domestic well on their property that exceeds drinking water standards and consciously poison their workers? It makes no sense.

“Many of the growers had already provided alternative water to occupants,” he said. “There’s no motivation to not do the right thing. I mean, who wants their best irrigator to get sick? And I think that’s something that gets overlooked.”

He said most of the residents who live on these rural agricultural properties are workers who’ve been with the farm for years; they’re not typically short-term renters.

Klassen said that since the November meeting, he’s been in continuing discussions with the water board about what form the information made available to the public should take. The coalition has suggested contour maps showing where the higher concentrations of nitrates are located in general rather than separate points on a map that show specific wells that have tested high for nitrates.

The Center for Legal Rural Assistance is on the other side of this debate. Pearl Kan, an attorney with the organization, thinks in this case, the public’s right to know trumps a farmer’s right to privacy. She said she couldn’t really speak to the concerns the coalition is expressing about privacy.

“People have concerns all the time, and the people we represent are very concerned about the quality of their water,” Kan said. “Privacy alone doesn’t trump what people are allowed under the law: access to information.”

The data should be out there for all to see: the specific wells, by how much they exceed the levels, where they’re located, and the actual notices growers have sent to residents using those wells for drinking water.

“People have to have access to the data themselves to come to their own conclusions,” Kan said. “We’re saying, ‘This is a right that people have, and it shouldn’t be eroded.’”

As for the coalition and the work it’s doing to help get domestic wells on agricultural property tested, she said all of the testing—the coalition’s and the individual reports being submitted to the water board—is a step in the right direction. She said that the debate over privacy and public information is ongoing and is slated for discussion at the next water board meeting, which is set for Jan. 29 and 30 in Santa Barbara.

Potential solutions

The solution to diluting the amount of nitrates in groundwater isn’t solidified yet, and it probably won’t be until growers and regulators come to some sort of consensus. Because while they’re working together to get as many of the 40,000 on-farm domestic wells between Santa Clara and Ventura tested as possible, they don’t necessarily agree on how to make sure the wells exceeding drinking water standards should be treated.

It seems like growers are pushing this idea Claire Wineman from the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties termed “pump and dump.” However, the science on the technique is still relatively new and data is still being collected.

Klassen, who also runs a nonprofit by the name of Cures (which is trying to find scientific solutions for such issues as high nitrate levels), calls it “pump and fertilize.” This is when growers use the water coming out of water wells to fertilize the crops, and only add more fertilizer—nitrates—if the concentrations in the well water aren’t enough. If farmers know the groundwater’s nitrate levels, they can reduce the amount of fertilizer they use on their crops.

Sharer—of the Sharer Brothers’ farm in Santa Maria—is in consensus with Wineman and Klassen on the pump-and-fertilize technique. He said it’s a good way to pull nitrates out of water, but added that it’s not necessarily seen that way by the water board.

“Pumping nitrogen-intense wells is a checkmark against the growers, when it should be encouraged,” Sharer said. “Pull it out of the aquifer, run it through the crops, and get it back into the system.”

UC Davis, Cures, and a handful of farms are working on trying to figure out how much nitrogen is taken up by crops such as strawberries. Klassen said Betteravia Farms is part of the UC Davis study. The farm has essentially taken some of its acreage and partially dedicated it to research purposes. Under that acreage are special instruments that measure how much nitrogen is in the water that filters out below the root zone.

“Plants are actually stripping nitrogen out of the water as it goes past the root zone,” Klassen said.

Researchers will know how much nitrogen is being put into the ground and how much is taken out through the normal plant-cycle. He believes that the more information science can get into the hands of growers, the better it is for everybody.

“Farmers, [if] given the right information, can change practices if they find out what they’re doing to cause the issues,” Klassen said. “But we need the information, farmers need the information to do that. I’m a firm believer that if you fertilize correctly, it won’t get in the groundwater.”

 

Contact Managing Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.




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