Farming runoff a slippery issue

Farmers say cost of proposed rules to cut nitrate pollution would put them out of business

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMay 4, 2011 

After 2 1⁄2 years of work and multiple public hearings, state water officials are still months away from adopting new rules intended to reduce polluted runoff from irrigated farmland.

State regulators have proposed sweeping new rules intended to reduce the amount of agriculture-related pollutants, primarily nitrates, from tainting streams and underground aquifers. They describe the pollution from farm runoff as well-documented, severe and widespread.

“The threat to rural homeowners from nitrates in domestic wells is the most important and challenging issue the water board and stakeholders are facing,” summarized a staff report to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The rules would require farmers to monitor the amount of pollutants they are releasing and to reduce them through programs that curb fertilizer and pesticide use and create buffer zones between farms and creeks.

However, the board lacks a quorum to adopt any new regulations. Two members of the board have removed themselves from the vote because they farm irrigated land. They are John Hayashi, a vegetable grower from Arroyo Grande, and Jean-Pierre Wolff, a vintner from San Luis Obispo.

Gov. Jerry Brown will have to fill at least one of three vacant seats on the board to reach a quorum. There are nine seats on the board, and only four board members are qualified to vote.

With numerous seats on many state advisory boards to fill and a budget crisis to contend with, it could take Brown months to fill the vacancies. New appointees would then have to review the lengthy public record of the proceedings before they could vote, said Roger Briggs, the board’s executive officer.

The proposed rules are widely unpopular with farmers. They say the regulations would require so much additional expense and paperwork that some farmers would be put out of business.

“I think the implementation of this program is going to be a lot more costly than people think,” said Joy Fitzhugh with the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau.

Farmers have proposed a more collaborative approach. However, water board staff think the farmers’ proposal is inadequate given the magnitude of the problem.

Conversely, environmentalists and wildlife officials support stricter new rules and say pollution will only get more serious if they are not adopted. Tainted runoff can be particularly toxic to fish and other aquatic species.

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