On Wednesday, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board will meet in San Luis Obispo to adopt a new order regulating agricultural practices.
The order recommended by board staff includes 142 new conditions, monitoring and reporting requirements that each farmer must meet.
These sweeping new regulations will have economic consequences for farmers and the Central Coast economy. Thousands of acres of the region’s most valuable and productive farmland will be set aside for “vegetative buffers” along creeks and ditches. Many farmers must report all fertilizers used and limits will be placed on the amount of fertilizer that can be applied. Farmers must sample their wells, as well as irrigation and storm water at the edge of their fields and report those results.
Water quality standards are proposed that in many cases can only be achieved by installing expensive treatment systems similar to a wastewater treatment plant.
Board staff has attempted to justify this regulatory expansion by presenting facts that, when examined, are found to contain omissions, anomalies and unfounded assumptions.
Instead of creating a complete and science-based factual record upon which to base public policy recommendations, board staff has already determined the direction and is advocating for its position by manipulating information.
For example, board staff repeatedly characterizes waters as “toxic” and blames agricultural practices for causing such “toxicity.”
What the board staff does not tell you is that its definition of toxicity is when a flea placed in a water sample dies in a laboratory setting. However, the mortality of these fleas can be caused by any number of constituencies in the water, not just agricultural chemicals. Under such a standard, even drinking water being dispensed at the Regional Water Quality Control Board office is “toxic” because the chlorines added to that water to kill pathogens will also kill the water flea.
Board staff has also failed to disclose that lab invertebrates used for testing do not live in the Central Coast aquatic system.
Poorly thought-out policy recommendations take place when government regulators isolate themselves and refuse to vet their predetermined policies with those who will be subject to them. Is it any wonder that board staff agreed to a total of just two meetings with the agricultural working group in the past 24 months?
Fortunately, during this time the agricultural community has not stood still. A group of agricultural organizations developed a set of alternative recommendations building upon the successful 2004 waiver program. The centerpiece of the agriculture alternative is the option to join a third-party coalition. The group would identify best management practices, review the implementation through an independent audit process and report improvements in the aggregate to the public and the board.
This proposal has been in the making for a long time and is the best option for moving the process forward to adoption.
Let’s all hope that as the adoption process moves forward, the board recognizes that water quality improvements will best be achieved through a collaborative approach working with farmers, and that they exercise oversight of board staff to ensure their policy directives are embraced and fully implemented.
Richard S. Quandt is president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.