Central Coast: State water board issues partial stay of new regulation

Issue Date: September 5, 2012
By Kate Campbell

After a day-long hearing during which farmers and agricultural organizations described extensive problems in implementing new water-quality regulations for the Central Coast region, the State Water Resources Control Board announced last week that it will stay some regulations as well as delay the effective date of others.

An order issued in March by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has been in effect since then and certain provisions had been due to take effect Oct. 1.

Individual farmers and agricultural organizations, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and seven county Farm Bureaus, appealed the entire order to the state water board. While the appeal is under consideration, farmers also requested a "stay" of certain provisions of the order.

Following the hearing held last week in Sacramento, the state board said it will "stay or extend the deadline for some provisions" of the order, known as a conditional waiver, "while not staying others."

The board said it will release a draft order detailing its decision on Sept. 10 and open a limited public comment period. The comment deadline on the draft stay order will be Sept. 14, by noon.

A final order related to the stay for deadline compliance will be scheduled for adoption at the state board's Sept. 19 public meeting.

The order adopted by the Central Coast board this spring requires individual farmers to monitor and report more closely on water quality and runoff. The board rejected a cooperative approach to water quality regulation proposed by farm groups.

Economists have estimated that the regulatory requirements in the regional board order could cost more than $230 million in lost revenue from agricultural operations, and that an estimated 2,500 to 3,300 agricultural jobs on the Central Coast would be lost.

While waiting to review the state board's stay order, farmers and their advocates reacted cautiously.

"Although I'm tempted to call the state board's decision a victory, we still don't know the details of what the board came up with and won't know until Sept. 10," said farmer Dirk Giannini of Salinas, who attended last week's hearing.

"It does appear the state water board understood from testimony last week that the regional board didn't take into account stakeholder opinion and expertise," Giannini said.

The Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, which was part of the agricultural coalition challenging the regional board order, noted in a letter to the regional board that the currently adopted regulations are "over-broad and intrusive on grower operations."

Cool-season vegetables, strawberries and nursery crops are most at risk under the board's current proposal, the association said. These three commodities comprise more than 75 percent of all acres used for farming on the Central Coast.

CFBF associate counsel Kari Fisher said Farm Bureau will continue to work with the state and regional water boards to ensure increased understanding of best management practices to protect water quality while farmers continue to produce highly diverse crops under a variety of growing conditions.

"The elephant in the room, however, is that there was no collaboration between the grower community and the regional water board staff," Giannini said. "Discussions about the order and how to implement it should have been happening during the past four years, but it did not and those discussions should not have ended up before the state board."

Farmer Bob Campbell of Lompoc greeted the state board's decision on the request for a stay as good news.

"The decision says a lot about the state board's willingness to be a genuine listener and recognize the economic burden being placed on growers," he said.

The agricultural community on the Central Coast depends on clean water and farmers want to be part of the solution in resolving the issues, Campbell said.

"The regional board's staff has shunned us in the entire regulatory development process," he said.

Attorney William Thomas of Sacramento, who represents Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms in the water board proceedings, called the state board's decision last week good news—in part.

"The state water board has not offered any clues as to what the final stay order might include," Thomas noted. "We'll just have to wait."

The state board's provisional stay continues the uncertainty for Santa Clara County growers, said Jennifer Scheer, Santa Clara County Farm Bureau executive director.

"We'll hear the decision about the stay in two weeks, right before the Oct. 1 deadline for many provisions," Scheer said. "Growers are still in limbo and don't know the actions they'll need to take."

But, she added, "the day-long hearing is an indication the state water board is taking a good, hard look at the appeal and recognizing the interim economic impacts. That's very helpful."

While waiting, lettuce grower Giannini said farmers on the Central Coast have a well-established record of working collaboratively to solve environmental issues.

"The farming community recognizes there is a water-quality problem on the Central Coast and we need science-based regulations to support our efforts to make substantive improvements," Giannini said. "We're more than willing to step up and improve water quality. We want to be part of the solution."

(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.