California farmers say proposed water rules will cost too much

State water officials have proposed a new set of rules aimed at reducing polluted runoff from farmland, but farmers say they will be too expensive to implement.

The rules are necessary because polluted farm runoff endangers people’s health, aquatic life and the ability to enjoy water recreation such as swimming and kayaking, said Angela Schroeter, manager of the agricultural program for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“The impacts on water quality from irrigated agriculture are severe,” she said. “For example, many of our creeks and streams are toxic to aquatic life, and data shows that toxicity is directly related to the runoff of pesticides from farming operations.”

Under the rules, farmers would be required to enroll in a monitoring program to demonstrate that their operations are either not discharging water during dry weather or, if they are, the discharge does not exceed limits for a variety of pollutants such as nitrates, ammonia, temperature and turbidity.

Farmers who fail to comply with the rules face enforcement actions from the water board that range from warnings to fines into the thousands of dollars.

The public comment period for the proposed rules will close April 1. The water board will hold a public workshop on the new rules May 12.

Farmers, meanwhile, are drawing up their own set of rules to propose as a counteroffer. They hope to have their proposal ready by the end of this month.

Farmers say the board’s new rules go overboard and would be burdensome on smaller farmers. For example, nurseries would be required to cover their container plants in order to prevent nutrient-laden water from leaching into groundwater, said Joy Fitzhugh of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau.

“There’s a lot of consternation out in the agriculture community at this point,” she said. “My personal hope is that this is the worst-case shot across the bow with the idea that there will be some sort of compromise or adjustment.”

Water officials acknowledge that the requirements will be a burden to farmers but note that the cost of polluted runoff is currently being borne by society as a whole in the form of increased public health costs and additional expense to bring drinking water to safe levels.

The program is designed to offer farmers a variety of ways to get into compliance, Schroeter said. They also have two to four years to reach compliance, depending on the type of pollutant.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board began developing the rules in 2004 and has enrolled 90 percent of farm acreage into the existing program. However, pollution of surface and groundwater continues.

The new rules are expanded to regulate both runoff and surface water that percolates into groundwater and has expanded monitoring and verification requirements.

The rules would apply to farmers in the entire 300-mile-long Central Coast district from southern San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to northern Ventura County.

The problem is worst in the heavily farmed Salinas and Santa Maria valleys, which contain 82 percent of the most degraded water quality sites. The Oso Flaco Lake area west of the Nipomo Mesa is also heavily impacted by polluted runoff.