The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued penalties against four Central Coast growers, with two in Santa Barbara County, for failing to report the amount of nitrogen used in their operations.
Nitrates are inorganic compounds containing nitrogen that are often used as fertilizers, but they have potential to cause health problems like cancer and thyroid disease if they move into the groundwater or surface water.
“When fertilizers containing nitrate are applied to crops to make plants grow, and the plants don’t use up all the nitrate in the fertilizer, the nitrates in the fertilizer have the potential to move through the soil and into the groundwater,” Thea Tyron, assistant executive officer for the Central Coast water board, told the Sun in an email. “This can cause the nitrate levels in groundwater to get too high and become unsafe to use and/or drink.”
On the Central Coast, groundwater accounts for approximately 90 percent of the drinking water supply, and the Santa Maria Valley basin has some of the most significant nitrate contamination—with some wells having nearly twice the drinking water standard, according to the water board.
“Growers are required to track and report the total nitrogen applied so the board can evaluate and appropriately prioritize areas with the highest potential impacts to groundwater, surface water, the environment, and public health,” according to a statement from the water board.
Santa Barbara County growers Boavista Farms and E&A Farming agreed to pay $144,605 and $48,186, respectively, in fees for not reporting nitrogen use in the 2021 calendar year. Tyron added that fees are required after staff sent emails reminding growers of due dates, a notice of violation letter, and a letter describing the “forthcoming assessment of liabilities” for the violation. If the enforcement team still can’t reach the grower, they issue a civil liability complaint.
Boavista Farms first received its notice of violation on March 29, 2022, for failing to submit its total nitrogen use, according to settlement agreements. On Feb. 6, 2023, the water board’s prosecution team met with Boavista Farms, and on Aug. 23, 2023, the grower submitted its 2021 report.
“Submitting a TNA [total nitrogen applied] report almost 18 months late substantially impairs the Central Coast water board’s ability to perform its regulatory functions, because the Central Coast water board uses TNA reports to assess threats to water quality and compliance with agricultural order requirements,” according to the order against Boavista.
E&A Farming received its first violation notice on March 29, 2022, and warning of legal action on Feb. 6, 2023, and the grower sat down with the prosecution team and submitted its 2021 report on April 25, 2023.
Boavista Farms and E&A Farming declined to comment on the issue.
While growers are required to submit total amounts of nitrates used, the Central Coast water board is still trying to figure out specific nitrogen application limits and discharge targets through its agricultural order, but they still have not gone into effect.
According to previous Sun reporting, the water board recently submitted a proposal to limit nitrate use in its most recent agricultural order, but it was rejected by the state. Now both the Central Coast water board and the State Water Resources Control Board face lawsuits for their nitrate policies—with local agriculture groups suing the state to find a better balance between the ability to grow food and the need to protect water, and environmental groups suing the Central Coast water board to establish limits on nitrates use.