The Cambrian

Viewpoint: Right to clean water

I got a call last week from a gentleman with the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB). He asked how many domestic wells were on our farm. With no simple answer, I tried to explain how the farm’s water system worked, and soon learn that he had probably never actually seen a water well. Then, dismissive, I said we had two wells and left it at that.

The call bothered me though … for the rest of the day. With more thinking, I concluded he was most likely an intern; a Cal Poly student making some summer money, given something to keep him busy — and, a long list of farmers to call; an insight that focused my thoughts on a long-standing gripe: excessive regulation for those of us who irrigate crops.

This March the RWQCB recently added new regulations. This ruling breaks new ground in an attempt to provide cleaner drinking water to the region’s population, in the process adding millions of dollars in cost to the food local farmer’s produce.

It has been protested to the State Water Board by a number of opposed groups, as well as some who feel it doesn’t go far enough, though my objections stem from the one-size-fits-all nature of the regulation. The RWQCB punishes growers in clean watersheds, like those surrounding Cambria, with the same rules that apply to those in problem areas.

And, added cost particularly burdens the few of us remaining smaller local farmers already greatly disadvantaged by the massive machine that supplies food to most Americans. There is a better solution than this misguided attempt to fix a difficult problem; one which I will come on to.

To complete the first thought, the RWQCB’s new regulation flies in the face of our county’s Board of Supervisors’ recent action to adopt a ‘buy local’ policy (The Tribune, July 29). The water board’s activism has further frustrated nonprofit and advisory groups with local water involvement. Personally, I found the regulation’s language offensive the first time I read I was a “discharger” with associated sinful acts.

The new regulation is nonetheless fundamentally a consequence of a very real problem: nitrate contamina-

tion of groundwater, largely due to the use of synthetic fertilizers and with possible adverse health effects. Crops only use a portion of applied fertilizer, some of the remainder ending up in groundwater. In fact, a study by U.C. Davis has shown that much of the nitrates seen in groundwater today in problem areas was applied decades before.

This is a long-term problem without an easy solution, bringing me to the third leg of the stool buttressing my frustration: the issue with the better solution.

With no easy solutions to the bigger nitrate problem — short of outlawing fertilizer and finding water

alternatives for decades — and, on top of additional measures, the RWQCB’s staff has chosen an expensive blanket approach of requiring farmers to regularly monitor wells.

Nonetheless, available reverse osmosis (RO) and other technologies can remove most nitrates from water, cost effectively when done in the individual home where the only water purified is used for drinking.

Then why didn’t the RWQCB recommend a program to install RO devices to supply drinking water in homes of problem areas? Because they were concerned that the devices would not be maintained by homeowners and contamination would return through neglect.

The RWQCB’s staff is fond of saying that everyone has the right to clean water. I would agree with the caveat that the right comes with responsibility. While many Americans appear to feel entitled to many things, my view is many of us have become lazy. Is annually cleaning or replacing a filter too much to ask?

So, the RWQCB’s logic seems to be that it is easier to punish the few remaining farmers (easy, because we’re less than half a percent of total population) because many Americans are too lazy to properly maintain a device.

This begs a question about where we have come to over the last few generations. My father grew up on a Midwestern farm without modern conveniences, e.g., without plumbing he’d never used, such as an indoor toilet, before WWII and the Army.

Despite this deprivation, he turned out just fine and along the way became quite handy with skills many folks today don’t seem to want to acquire.

But, then … a popular method of controlling rodents on farms is to use bait dispensers. Initially shy, the rodents learn they like the bait and eventually take it home. The bait contains a toxicant that slowly accumulates, but by the time it’s obvious they’ve been poisoned, it’s too late. And maybe those 70 years since WWII have been our incubation period and, like those rodents, we’ve become too accustomed to our little luxuries.

Despite my harshness, there are positive aspects to the ag waiver. For instance, encouraging growers to use drip irrigation and better monitor fertilizer needs. But, rather than demonize farmers whose only crime is supplying food, the RWQCB should really consider better options.

Mike and Carol Broadhurst farm near Cambria and sell at local farmers markets.