Replacing a regulatory vision in California

Aug 12, 2011

After decades of building a complex regulatory structure, officials, farmers and environmentalists learned the hard way that it wasn’t working.

Food-safety problems translate into removing conservation practices; saving a fish cuts off an entire farm economy from its water supply; reducing livestock lagoons and methane emissions runs afoul of air-quality rules for diesel engines.

The state recognized the challenges in a report last December. The Ag Visions 2030 group declared California’s regulatory system “duplicative, conflicting, uncoordinated, inflexible, inconsistently administered or needlessly burdensome.” To move ahead, the statewide committee recommended working on ways to reconcile often-conflicting mandates.

“Very often we talk that California producers, or the agricultural system, is the most heavily regulated system in the world,” says vegetable grower and former California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura. “I don’t have any actual data to prove that, but I still believe it to be true. When you look at all the broad spectrum of rules and regulations that California ranchers and farmers have to comply with, they face tremendous challenges in terms of fines or penalties, and market demands.

“Our farmers easily have a lot higher cost structure in the regulatory arena than any place else in the country I am aware of,” Kawamura says.

Ralph Grossi, who raises grapes and leases land for grazing near Petaluma, cochaired Vision 2030. He says California is a microcosm of the nation’s regulatory issues as the population has expanded and fewer people farm. Californians also want to be leaders in environment, climate change and food safety.

“So we have all of these regulations that were developed for a very narrow, specific purpose without a real eye on the broader net impact; so they conflict.”

In 2006, vegetable farmers in Salinas Valley—called the nation’s salad bowl— were rocked by a massive recall of spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 that killed five people and sickened more than 200. Feral hogs were linked to the contamination. That prompted food regulators and major buyers to demand fruit and vegetable growers remove trees and riparian buffer strips, practices put in place largely to reduce nutrient runoff and improve water quality.

“Suddenly farmers were encouraged to clear out any habitat that might lead to any wild animals around their vegetables,” Grossi says. “Of course, that was the very habitat we have been paying farmers to put in place through various conservation programs. So, if you are a farmer around all of this, you have got to be pretty confused by this sort of shifting priorities.”

Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of Wild Farm Alliance in Watsonville, CA, says it became a huge setback for conservation programs. “The big, leafy green buyers are mainly what have driven this conflict with conservation. They want zero risk in the food, so they don’t think about good agricultural practices.” She said this ends up affecting water quality downstream. This becomes a safety issue and a socialjustice issue, because this could affect the drinking supplies of towns that are heavily populated by Latinos.

Baumgartner and others have asked USDA to step in and restore some balance between good conservation practices and food-safety measures.

The hub of California’s water distribution system, the Sacramento Delta alone has enough water-quality complaints, political disputes, allocations, legal decisions and state statutes to have a law library unto itself.

“You have got everything from invasive species, predatory fish that are not native, to water-quality issues and waste-water treatment facilities that put untreated water back in on what have you,” says Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau’s director of water resources. “There are a lot of things going on. People have spent their lifetimes working on it and still don’t know the answers.”

A common misconception is that agriculture takes the bulk of water in California. In reality, state water officials report the environment uses 48 percent of the state’s developed water compared to 41 percent by agriculture and 11 percent by urban residents. Environmental water encompasses water for stream protection for endangered species, for example.

A 2009 federal Endangered Species Act decision shut off Delta canal flows and farmers’ irrigation pumps, causing the normally adversarial Central Valley farmers and farm workers to join forces to protest together. In response, the state legislature passed a comprehensive water package later that year to, among other things, create a governance

structure for the Delta and Watermaster Program to oversee key decisions. The bills also proposed an $11.4 billion bond election that has been delayed until 2012.

The problem, however, is that a statewide package sweeps everyone into new mandates. Now, each county or water district must monitor groundwater or risk losing funds. Even though groundwater levels range drastically across California’s complicated geography, legislation is proposed every year to charge farmers and others for groundwater pumping. The new watermaster service, administered by the Department of Water Resources, also is proposing new regulatory issues to address statewide.

“I have a real problem with the state saying they can do a better job managing our groundwater than we can locally,” Merkley says.

There is a constant and steady attempt in California to take peoples’ water rights away, Merkley says.

With complications mounting, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials said last February that they were there to help. Actually, they released an “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” under the Clean Water Act to examine several key areas.

While others push for more flexibility and the EPA takes a look at the Delta, the U.S. Department of Interior is also working on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a complicated and ambitious 50-year project looking at population growth and wildlife in the region.

Yet, for all the regulatory issues California has, farmers in the state have largely staved off permits for groundwater, and most are not metered. “But the handwriting is on the wall,” says Chester Andrew, who grows almonds, pistachios and grapes near Madera, CA. “You see it coming.” — Chris Clayton, DTN