Californias regulatory cycle springs environmental traps

Aug 19, 2011
by WLJ

Just a t u m b l eweed’s roll away from California’s geographical c e n t e r , rancher Clay D a u l t o n drives by pieces of the ranch in Madera County first settled by his great-greatgrandfather, an original California Gold Rush fortyniner. The landscape just west of Yosemite National Park is dotted with white outcroppings from foothills near the San Joaquin Valley. “The old-timers call it the white-rock country, and it was the best for ranching,” he says.

A former leader in state and national rancher groups, Daulton now spends his time reading environmental articles or conservation plans with a skeptical eye. He stops his pickup and points to invasive thistle weeds in the ditch he isn’t allowed to legally spray.

Even on ground that can be sprayed, Daulton’s hired hand can’t do it for him because of permit restrictions.

“He has a permit, but I don’t have a permit to train him, so he can’t spray for me,” he says.

It is almost a naturally occurring, therapeutic process for farmers everywhere to complain about environmental regulations. Yet, the sophistication of California’s federal, state, regional, district and county regulatory controls on air, water, land use and species has impressively developed into a headscratching paradox. Not even the best environmental stewards in agriculture can maneuver through the carefully layered circularity without setting off a bureaucratic trap.

Dairy digester dilemma

California has laws to address climate change, create renewable energy, improve water quality and reduce smog. There are myriad state and regional boards for them all, which have butted heads over efforts to build state methane digesters for dairy operations.

A report from the University of California-Berkeley found digesters reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollutants, such as hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter. They also improve ground and surface water quality, reduce odor, produce renewable energy and create organic fertilizer.

However, generators for dairy digesters create nitrous oxide, or Nox, which the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is mandated to reduce because the valley’s air quality is so bad. Yet, the air board can’t regulate vehicles, and it can’t regulate pollution blowing into the valley from the San Francisco and Los Angeles metro areas. So people with stationary, combustion engines get the proverbial regulatory hammer.

There’s the rub for John Fiscalini and other dairy farmers. He has grappled with permits for his 1,500-head dairy operation since 2007, while his digester costs increased to millions of dollars. The digester has run since summer 2009, but to get a twoyear operating permit, he had to put in a catalytic converter that cost about $200,000. Every week he’s tested to ensure the engine meets regulatory specifications. “Compliance is expensive,” he says.

Fiscalini had technical and professional advisory committees work on his project. He even received a grant from the California Energy Commission to try to figure out how to best get digester engines into compliance.

“I am sure in a back room they are looking at that, but Nox is the thing they are mandated to fix. That’s the area where apparently we are failing, so that’s where they are focusing without looking at other emissions,” Fiscalini says.

What about the digester’s energy production that reduces power from coal, or the cleaner water produced as effluent? “The agencies don’t speak to one another. The air board is truly at odds with the water board,” Fiscalini says.

Since state-permitting requirements began for digesters, no one now is building methane digesters.

A couple of hours down the road, at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, one of the nation’s biggest farm shows is filled with booths from recruiters representing other states and regions who want to attract California farmers, particularly dairies. They come from Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota and South Carolina.

“We’re short of milk in general in the Southeast, and dairies are still considered good guys, so we want dairies to come in,” says Jim Howie, director of dairy development for the Southern Marketing Agency Inc.

“We also don’t have the environmental issues they have out here, and we don’t have the water issues either.”

Pools, prunings and pesticides

Daulton highlights what he sees as an erosion of property rights on his 10,000-acre ranch as state water regulators want landowners to apply for water permits for dams that were put in place in the 1940s. Daulton has five of them. He could farm his land, but couldn’t put in an orchard that would require deeper plowing. Daulton says he would need a permit for that. “I’m scared to death to put in a ditch,” he grumbles.

Driving a little farther, Daulton stops to show off a mud puddle. Such puddles on his ranch are considered vernal pools and could hold species like fairy shrimp. Vernal pools in California have been increasingly regulated over the years by the U.S. Department of Interior.

“Any mud puddle is a vernal pool,” Daulton says.

“These little vernal pools are a really big deal. I would argue these vernal pools are not natural. They were created by farming. This land was farmed for 80 years.”

Developers now call to try to buy conservation easements, which would effectively restrict usage on the land for up to 100 years. Developers need these easements to offset the environmental impacts of housing developments elsewhere.

Eating dinner at the Vineyard restaurant in Madera, CA, Daulton and his friend Chester Andrews explain some of the complexities of California law. Andrews farms several thousand acres that are largely converted to almonds, pistachios and wine grapes.

“He can burn prunings, but I can’t burn wood that grows naturally,” Daulton says.

Andrews explains that he just recently had a county agent inventory all the chemicals on his farm “right down to the cans of WD-40.” Given his crop volume, Andrews also is required to submit monthly reports for all pesticide applications.

“I have a full-time guy just to work on pesticide regulations,” he says. “I was doing it myself, but it was taking three full days a month just to go through the paperwork. It’s a full-time job now.

Every application gets reported.” — Chris Clayton, DTN