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Growers scramble to comply with rules

This article appeared in the Fresno Bee on March 26, 2004

By Dennis Pollock

Thousands of California growers are working to meet a Thursday deadline to deal with the problem of pollution from water running off irrigated land.

But it's believed that thousands of other growers are not responding to the new state rules.

Some confusion hangs over the application of the new regulations, put in place by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, say farmers and members of the board's staff.

"This is not a perfect program;there's a lot to do," said Bill Croyle, senior engineer with the board in Sacramento. "We went from zero to 90 in 15 months."

The new regulations mean the end of what had been a 20-year exemption for growers from strict guidelines regulating pollutant runoff. Farm groups helped shape the new regulations by developing "watershed coalitions" to address problems collectively. Environmentalists had favored an individual permit process.

A month ago, the board stepped up its outreach to growers by printing about 100,000 fliers explaining what options are available to farmers so they can comply with the new rules.

By Thursday, the coalitions must submit a report detailing crops, use of pesticides and fertilizer and a monitoring plan for watershed drainage areas.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that many farmers -- some with small acreage -- are not included in the coalitions that have formed.

Parry Klassen, a Selma farmer and executive director of the Coalition for Urban-Rural Environmental Stewardship, said "the vast majority of farmers in the Valley are out of compliance."

Klassen is on the board of directors for the East San Joaquin Valley Coalition. "There are 1,000 growers in that coalition," he said, adding that 5,000 in the Merced and Stanislaus counties area have not joined.

Joining a coalition is the cheapest grower option, partly because of shared costs. Other options include filing for an individual discharge waiver or filing reports of waste discharge.

Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Jerry Prieto Jr. said he believes that the water board is relying too much on other agencies -- including the watershed groups -- to get the word out. "The brochure was the first tangible evidence they were doing something on their own," he said. "When you start a program, you need to get the word out to the maximum number of people and not rely on a Web site."

Croyle pointed out that there have been numerous meetings across the state in which staff members of the board explained the new rules.

He also noted that it was farm leaders who called for forming coalitions "to make sure ag interests had a way to comply with the California Water Code that was both economically feasible and effective."

Croyle said he expects those coalition groups to help get the word out about the regulations.

Both Croyle and Russell Walls, a senior engineer with the board in Fresno, said they do not expect fines to be levied for noncompliance. But they said efforts will be made to reach farmers who have not chosen one of the three options and notify them that they need to do so.

"We don't propose fining somebody right off the bat," Walls said.

Klassen said many farmers "have a hard time understanding how they could be in violation, and the regional board has done a poor job of explaining that. This is not as simple as burn and no-burn days. Discharging storm water is hard to figure."

Klassen said one challenge is that rainfall levels in parts of the region differ greatly, from more than 20 inches a year in Shasta to 5 or 6 inches in Bakersfield. "A lot of farmers in the South Valley are saying, 'Runoff? What runoff?"

Certain to be another sticking point for the new rules is the identification of members in coalitions. Klassen said the board has the authority to get a list of members' names "when a problem develops."

Sarge Green, manager of the Westside Resource Conservation District, said "putting everybody's name in an open public file is the biggest concern of all. That rises above the goal of solving problems."

Green urged growers to choose one of the options, and said the coalitions offer the best alternative. "If you are not part of the solution, [regulators] will be twice as hard on you as if you are part of a coalition and prepared to work on solutions," he said.

The reporter can be reached at dpollock@fresnobee.com or 441-6364.

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