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Farmers ready to play watchdog

Not all comply with program to fight pollution

This article appeared in the Stockton Record on December 31, 2005

By Warren Lutz, Record Staff Writer

Groups of Valley farmers participating in a program to clean up agriculture runoffs appear ready to tell the state who they are - sort of.

The program allows farmers to be exempt from strict pollution-permit requirements that normally apply to factories and sewage treatment plants that discharge water. Some experts believe farm runoff is the biggest source of the Valley's water pollution, as waters seeped in pesticides, sediment and animal feces drain into waterways.

Environmentalists say the most popular pesticides are known to contaminate groundwater, cause cancer and kill wildlife.

But many farmers are concerned about their privacy, and local farm coalitions organized under the program don't want to act as water cops by telling water officials which farmers aren't playing along. All but one coalition ignored a Nov. 1 deadline to submit their membership lists, officials had said.

After being rebuked by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, several farm groups now plan to submit parcel numbers of participating farmers, said Diana Messina, a board water resource engineer. That's good enough, since officials can still find out who isn't participating in the program by looking at property records, which are public information, she said.

"No one has really come forward and said, 'We'll provide you with a list people who are flat-out ducking the radar,' " Messina said. "But they are coming up with information that is helping us identify folks."

Two farm coalitions, the Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition and the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition, already submitted parcel lists, Messina said.

Another group, the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, plans to separate the names of their members from nonmembers by using parcel information and pesticide-use reports, representative Parry Klassen said.

Klassen said the coalitions are more busy with sampling than chasing down nonmembers.

"Really, (water officials) are the ones that can get folks to join who are not joining. They got the carrot and the stick," he said.

If farmer groups fail to monitor runoff properly, the water board could revoke their waivers and require them to get permits.

Officials required farmers to file annual reports regarding water quality.

The first reports covering the Delta region found at least eight waterways were toxic to aquatic life.

The State Water Resources Control Board issued the rules in February 2003 under pressure from environmental groups. But the program has other problems.

Critics argue it lacks teeth, as farm coalitions are so far only charged with monitoring runoff, not preventing it. The farm groups, meanwhile, want officials to extend the program for another five years to give it time to work.

Last month, members of the water board - a majority of whom were appointed only weeks before - voted to extend the program six months.

Bill Jennings, chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and a principal advocate of regulating farm runoff, said "it remains to be seen" whether the parcel solution works.

"If in fact they can identify all the farmers that have not joined a coalition, I suppose it's a workable solution," Jennings said.

Contact reporter Warren Lutz at (209) 546-8295 or wlutz@recordnet.com.

On the Net: http://www.stocktonrecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051231/NEWS01/512310324&SearchID=73259931440965

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