Farmers push back on new runoff rules

Hundreds of farmers and others packed the Elks Lodge in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday to voice their concerns about sweeping new agricultural runoff rules under consideration for the Central Coast.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board held a daylong workshop about the rules. It was a standing-room-only event in the lodge hall that had seating for 300.

Farmers say the rules are potentially devastating because they will require “extensive and massive” recordkeeping. Environmentalists say the rules are “more than fair” and are needed to protect drinking water supplies.

On Feb. 1, water board staff released their draft set of rules designed to reduce the amount of polluted farm water released into streams and groundwater aquifers. The rules would require farmers to closely monitor the amount of pollutants they are releasing and to reduce those pollutants through programs that curb fertilizer and pesticide use and establish buffer zones between farms and creeks.

Matt Keeling, with the water board staff, painted a stark picture of the dangers posed by tainted runoff, which he described as “widespread, industrial-scale pollution of staggering proportions.”

Nitrates are far and away the most common farm pollutant. Nitrates come primarily from fertilizers but can be produced by septic systems and livestock waste. Of 700 municipal drinking water wells in the region, at least 200 exceed safe drinking water standards for nitrates and must be blended or treated, Keeling said.

Diseases linked to nitrate pollution include diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Nitrate pollution is worse in intensively farmed areas like the Salinas and Santa Maria valleys.

Water pollution is also an environmental justice issue, Keeling said, because lower-income people are more likely to rely on tainted wells for drinking water. Polluted runoff is also toxic to fish and other wildlife that live in streams.

Farmers are urging water officials to take a more collaborative approach that relies on cooperative monitoring programs tailored to fit the needs of individual farmers rather than arbitrary one-size-fits-all rules. Kris O’Connor with the Central Coast Vineyard Team said the paperwork required by the rules is so burdensome they could cost tens of thousands of dollars per grower.

“There are some real technical and process concerns with what the staff has proposed,” she said. “I just don’t think paperwork will result in better water quality.”

Environmental groups say the new rules are long overdue and desperately needed. Contrary to the farmers’ claims, they say water board staff used a collaborative approach over the past year and a half and produced rules that protect both the environment and agriculture.

“With this blueprint, we hope that the integrity of our waters can be restored and that agriculture can become more sustainable,” said Nathan Alley, a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

Water board staff members said the rules have already been changed in response to public input and further changes are likely. The district has received about 1,200 letters regarding the rules.

More workshops in other parts of the region, including one in July in Watsonville, are possible. The Central Coast water region extends from Santa Cruz County to Ventura County.

Water officials hope to finalize the rules later this year, said Roger Briggs, the board’s executive director.