After two grueling days of public testimony and deliberations, the state’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted rules Thursday that will require farmers to more closely monitor water quality and reduce polluted runoff.
The vote caps 31⁄2 years of negotiations with farmers and environmental advocates, a process that water-quality regulators describe as one of the most exhaustive ever done in the state.
The water board voted unanimously to require that farmers adopt irrigation and nutrient management plans as well as more closely monitor water quality around their farms and report that data to state water officials. The requirements are more stringent for larger farms and those close to polluted water bodies.
“This is a good faith effort to improve water quality,” said board member Monica Hunter of Los Osos.
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Board member Michael Jordan of Santa Barbara said the new rules put the ball in dischargers’ court to prove that improvements in water quality are being made. They were prompted by studies showing that groundwater on the Central Coast contains unprecedented levels of nitrates and surface waters are tainted with pesticides and nutrients.
The pollution is particularly bad in the Santa Maria and Salinas Valley areas, where many row crops are grown.
The water board was under intense pressure from farmers and agricultural groups to adopt less-stringent rules. They argued that the cost of implementing the rules and reporting the results would be onerous and could force some farmers out of business.
In the final rules adopted by the board, several concessions were made to farmers. They include the ability to fulfill some of the requirements cooperatively, an extension of some of the reporting deadlines to 2014 and the ability to propose water quality improvement projects that would reduce a farm’s requirements.
The board rebuffed several attempts by its members to extend deliberations late into the evening in an effort to reconcile some of the farmers’ complaints and incorporate more of their suggestions. However, Chairman Jeffrey Young of Santa Barbara said many of the differences are irreconcilable.
Water board staff also argued against more delays and questioned whether more discussion would accomplish anything.
“We’re stuck,” said Michael Thomas, the board’s assistant executive officer.
Roger Briggs, the board’s executive officer, said the rules are flexible enough to be modified over time as problems and new solutions come up. He promised to bring the rules back to the board on a regular basis for updates.