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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 4th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 30

Water board issues partial stay on irrigation regulations

BY JEREMY THOMAS

The California State Water Resources Control Board is giving farmers more time to comply with some provisions in an order imposing tougher environmental regulations on discharged wastewater in irrigated land.

On Sept. 19, the board issued a stay on the order, which institutes a three-tier system dividing farms, vineyards, and nurseries based on their threat to water quality. Adopted by the water board in March, the order requires dischargers to install and maintain backflow protection, mandates buffer zones from bodies of water, and requires farmers to conduct monitoring of riparian areas and wetland habitats.

Board spokesman Tim Moran couldn’t comment further on the quasi-judicial order, but did say the regulations offer important water-quality protections, particularly in rural areas where most people get their water from shallower, private wells.

“[The regulations] are meant to address a problem primarily with nitrates in groundwater,” he explained. “It’s an attempt to clean the water, which is the purpose of the board.”

Some regulations were set to take effect Oct. 1, but the order drew appeals from the California Farm Bureau and other ag groups, such as the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, arguing that its adoption violates the farmers’ due process rights and fails to account for the economic impact on the region. Central Coast farm organizations contend the regulations could cost the county’s ag community money and jobs.

The water board has 270 days from Sept. 17 to act on the petitions, unless it holds a hearing or obtains a 60-day extension. Moran said that during the stay, the board would look further at the legal challenges and make a final decision.

Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau President Kevin Merrill said the new regulations don’t provide enough time to accurately measure improvements in water quality and don’t take into account how much farmers have already changed their irrigation practices to curb nitrate pollution.

“They set goals that are unreachable,” Merrill said. “They don’t understand that if you quit farming today, it would take 60 to 100 years or more to start to get the results they’re wanting to achieve in five years.”

Merrill said the board should work with farmers to ensure irrigation practices don’t contribute more pollution to surface water and groundwater. The tests and monitoring required by the new order are too costly, he added, the most “onerous” being those for the highest tier of mostly vegetable growers.

“It’s just one more regulation the agriculture community has to deal with, and it’s an expensive one,” Merrill said. “For Tier 3, you’re talking about thousands of dollars per acre … pretty soon you’re going to see guys going out of business. It’s going to have a real effect on the economy.”

The criteria for determining the three tiers includes the distance of the farm to water bodies, the potential effect of the pesticides used on surface water, and the potential for the farmer’s type of crop to discharge nitrogen.

Lisa McCann, spokesperson for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board Central Coast, said farmers have had since 2004 to address watershed monitoring. The new restrictions, she added, would advance current pollution controls, especially in dealing with the “widespread” presence of nitrates in drinking water.

“We do recognize that it takes time for water quality to indicate the efforts that people are doing on farms and at their facilities,” McCann said. “But we think it’s time for increased effort and increased reporting, because of the severity of the water quality problems.”