Central Coast: New water quality rules mostly reject cooperative effort

Issue Date: March 21, 2012
By Kate Campbell

Farm groups that had sought a cooperative approach to water quality regulation said they were reviewing their options after the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board voted 6-0 last week to adopt new wastewater discharge requirements for the region's farms. The final order included few recommendations made by farmers on how to achieve water quality improvements.

The new rules, which are effective immediately, require individual farmers to monitor and report more closely on water quality and runoff from their operations.

How the new regulations will affect individual farmers and how much it will cost them to implement is unclear. California Farm Bureau Federation legal and policy specialists who attended the two-day board hearing in San Luis Obispo said so many last-minute changes occurred that the actual impact of the new regulations remains "foggy" for now.

It is clear, however, that the regulations establish a three-tiered regulation system, ranking agricultural operations deemed to pose the greatest water-quality risk. Farms identified as "Tier 3 dischargers" face the most stringent regulation. Agricultural analysts said this approach appears to target growers of crops that require the use of certain crop inputs and smaller farms with less water management infrastructure.

"Under the new tiered system, if you grow a crop with a high potential to discharge nitrogen, you're in a higher tier," CFBF environmental attorney Kari Fisher explained. "If you use chlorpyrifos or diazinon, you're in a higher tier. If you're close to an impaired water body, you're in a higher tier. If you're near a public well that exceeds maximum contaminant levels, you're in a higher tier. The type of crops farmers grow will affect the level of monitoring required."

Agricultural representatives had previously submitted detailed, suggested changes to the proposed Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Irrigated Agriculture, including a watershed coalition approach that focused on education and collaboration. This framework for water quality improvement is being used in other regions of the state, but Central Coast regulators declined to adopt it.

Staff for the Central Coast regional board reviewed the farm organizations' proposal, which outlined the coalition approach. Some recommendations were accepted, but the overall approach was not. The board said farmers may join a coalition if approved by the board's executive officer, but that participation will not replace monitoring and reporting requirements.

At the end of the hearing, board member Mike Johnston presented suggested amendments to the staff proposal that were adopted and would, among other things:

  • Allow regulated farmers to coordinate cooperative water quality improvement efforts and adopt alternative water quality monitoring plans.
  • Allow local- or regional-scale water quality protection and treatment strategies.
  • Allow regulated farmers to continue to implement alternative treatment or monitoring programs approved by the board's executive officer, as long as they demonstrate continuous improvement and sufficient progress toward water quality improvement and elimination of toxicity, based on measurable indicators.
  • Allow regulated farmers to seek review by the water board of decisions by the board's executive officer.

The newly adopted order says farms identified as Tier 3 dischargers must initiate individual surface water discharge monitoring and reporting programs. Monitoring results must be submitted annually to the board.

Water quality specialists working with Farmers for Water Quality, the coalition of agricultural groups that had submitted a plan to the regional board, said the alternative monitoring plans allowed by the order will need to meet specific criteria, which are not yet clearly defined.

The projects will be reviewed by a technical advisory committee comprised of two researchers or academics skilled in agricultural practices and/or water quality, one farm advisor, one grower representative, one environmental representative, one environmental justice or environmental health representative, and one regional board staff member.

How many farms and ranches will be affected and to what extent is the "$64,000 question," Fisher said. "Staff has said there will be hardly any farms in Tier 3, only about 100 farms in the whole region."

But a representative of Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, told the board before it voted that a survey of farmers in the Assembly district indicated more than 300 farmers would fall into Tiers 2 or 3.

Farmers for Water Quality said in a prepared statement after the meeting that the group will review next steps and discuss those steps with its members in coming days.

CFBF Water Resources Director Danny Merkley noted that because the new regulations are effective now, "there are lots of things growers are going to need to do immediately." He said an interim compliance period would have made more sense, to allow for orderly on-farm improvements.

"In my years of working with state and regional water boards, I've not seen a more flawed process in creating regulations to address real water quality improvements," Merkley said, noting the long, drawn-out process failed to produce regulations that can be responded to quickly and efficiently.

"In my experience, other regional boards have been more interested in a collaborative process that includes input from all stakeholders," he said. "That was not the case on the Central Coast last week."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.