Heavy-handed CA runoff program not sitting well with ag businesses

Apr 27, 2012

New runoff rules adopted by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board that cover all or part of eight counties from San Mateo to Ventura, CA, have raised the ire of the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF), the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, and other agriculture groups who fear it will hurt farmers, ranchers and other ag businesses without improving water quality.

Adopted by a 6-0 vote in March, the rules are supposed to reduce groundwater and surface water pollution from nitrate fertilizer, pesticides and sediment coming from irrigated farm fields.

That vote coincides with a report commissioned for the legislature by the California State Water Resources Control Board that found 10 percent of the 2.6 million residents in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley drink groundwater that might contain high levels of nitrates from fertilizers.

That region encompasses nearly 4 million acres of farm land or 40 percent of California’s irrigated crops and more than half of the state’s Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

Danny Merkley, water resources director for CFBF, said that the runoff rules and the 92-page “Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water” report are “very much connected” although separate issues.

On Monday, April 16, CFBF and the coalition of farm groups filed petitions for the state water control board to review and stay the Central Coast runoff rules, contending the regional board failed to fully consider an alternative proposal from the agriculture industry and violated the California Environmental Quality Act. They say the more stringent rules could take a lot of agriculture land out of production.

The CFBF petition or appeal says the new runoff rules will lead to “dramatic and severe impacts on the agricultural industry, which will have a significant effect on the economic and social environment of the region.”

During a Western Livestock Journal telephone interview, Merkley sharply criticized the way the regional board runoff rules were processed and enacted. There are nine regional water quality control boards in California. He served as an ag liaison executive officer for the state water resources control board before joining CFBF in 2007.

“I have never seen the process so flawed as the last three and a half years,” Merkley said, blaming new regional board staffers for ramming the runoff rules through without considering input from farm and ranch interests. “The staff had basically the attitude we know better and that’s how it’s going to be. That does not cut it in nonpoint source issues. It’s doomed for failure.”

Admitting he has been frustrated by the process, Merkley said the regional board staffers did not do their homework, did not collaborate with ag officials, and had preconceived ideas about the runoff rules. “I will tell you they will do little to solve water quality issues. They’ve adopted a heavy-handed program that will not move forward.”

Central Coast board members, who hold down full-time jobs and conduct monthly meetings, were handed very thick packets by the staff with details about complex water issues before a meeting and expected to decide the runoff rules that same evening.

“To do that within a public meeting with time constraints and a one-time shot is ridiculous,” Merkley said.

“One stupid example” of the flawed process is a “purely arbitrary” tiering rule that asserts 500 contiguous acres are more of a risk to water quality than 100-acre farms. “Larger operations typically do a better job because they have the resources,” Merkley said. While many small producers are good at implementing requirements, many of them cannot afford the costs involved, he noted, adding another rule requires all farmers to monitor water coming off their property as opposed to cooperative monitoring programs.

Because the rules are detailed and expensive, ag interests expected to discuss them with the regional water control board, but staffers proposed no meetings. The day after the public comment period was closed, one board member suggested that board colleagues discuss a three-page document among themselves, Merkley said.

CFBF and other petitioners requested to see a copy of it and found it contained verbatim language proposed by the Otter Project, an environmental group. “There was no requirement to share it with the public,” Merkley said. “A board member put forward a proposal that did not have an opportunity for public comment or rebuttal.”

The University of California Davis nitrate contamination report covers Fresno and Bakersfield and extends to Monterey. It found that 254,000 people living in the area rely on groundwater that may exceed the California Department of Public Health’s nitrate standard of 45 milligrams per liter.

It concluded more than 90 percent of the contamination comes from ranches, farms and crops. It recommended it would be more feasible to improve fertilizer management and treatment systems rather than try to remove nitrates from groundwater basins, which could cost up to an estimated $35 million a year for decades to remediate.

The report blamed synthetic fertilizer, increased manure applications, and a shift to confined dairy operations from pastureraised cattle for boosting the overall nitrate load.

Since 1988, Merkley said, nitrogen fertilizer applications in California have leveled off and yields have advanced, showing better technology has increased efficiency in the ag sector, but manure applications have gone up.

The dairy industry and feedlots have taken “extremely progressive” nutrient management measures to deal with their lagoons and installing digesters, which has been challenging, he said.

“A lot of the regulations that dairies have had to deal with have driven dairies to either grow in size or go out of business. The dairies we see today typically in business had to put more cows on the same footprint and, being more efficient, don’t graze dairy cows anymore,” Merkley said, adding stalls are in more confined areas and manure is used in larger areas.

In a related development, the University of California and California State University have received joint funding on priority issues such as urban residential water demand, restoring pollinator communities, and estimating alfalfa’s impact on nitrogen leaching from irrigated fields in the Central Valley. – Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent