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E. coli turns up in S.J. streams

Tests find unsafe amounts of bacteria

This article appeared in the Stockton Record on March 28, 2006

By Warren Lutz, Record Staff Writer

STOCKTON - Farmers charged with monitoring the nasties that drain off their farms haven't found many pesticides, but they are finding alarmingly high levels of fecal bacteria.

Traces of E. coli, a bacterium formed in the lower intestines of mammals and birds, has been found in almost every site tested by two farm groups, according to a University of California, Davis, professor who performed the work.

In humans, E. coli can cause diarrhea, serious illness and even death.

Traces of the bacteria exceeded levels considered safe at more than half the sites tested and in some cases reached eight times levels considered safe, UC Davis water specialist Michael Johnson said.

Farm groups paid for the tests as part of a state program that lets farmers avoid getting expensive waste-discharge permits if they regulate the water that runs off their property after it has been used for crops.

"Most of the (groups) are getting hits for that," Johnson said. "I think it's more widespread than what people understand."

Officials created the program to cut pesticide levels in rivers and streams. Rain or excess irrigation water can run off fields, bringing along pesticides, fecal matter from animals or sediment. Some of those pollutants can kill fish as well as the food they eat.

It's not known how dangerous the high bacteria levels may be to people who ski or swim in the Delta, officials said.

Drinking water usually is treated for bacteria, and scientists found E. coli mostly in small irrigation ditches and streams where people aren't likely to go, Johnson said. But more tests may be needed to determine whether E. coli is reaching as far as the Delta, where it could become a hazard to boaters, water skiers and anglers.

"If the bacteria continues to survive and it reaches downstream, ... there is that possibility," Johnson said.

Johnson said he is preparing a new study to find out from where the bacteria are coming, whether from humans, birds, cows, dogs or other animals. Those sources could include anything from livestock to wildlife to broken sewer lines. No one is sure, he said.

E. coli is just the latest issue that has arisen with the program as officials prepare to overhaul it.

Last month, a California legislative analysis found widespread noncompliance is hurting the program's budget. Fees collected from farmers run the program, but some coalitions say they have gotten only half the farmers in their area to sign up.

Water board staff and farmers say they are in discussions to raise the program fees or find money from other sources. Yet they still are hammering out another prickly issue: whether to make public the names of farmers who sign up.

The same legislative analysis said making the names of program participants public was crucial to the program's success, and it suggested pushing the issue through state law.

Members of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition were told early in the program's formation that their names would be kept private, said the group's director, Parry Klassen. He said farmers don't want to be harassed by marketing groups or environmental activists.

"One of the factors that we're pushing for is that the lists can stay confidential," Klassen said. "Whether we're going to get that or not, I don't know. We just don't want that out in the public domain."

Some farmers try to keep water from running off their properties at all.

Bill Koster, an almond farmer near Tracy, said he collects and reuses all the irrigation water on his 1,000 acres through pumps on each of his five parcels. But there's always a chance his water could leak off his property, he said, so he joined a coalition.

"It's like health insurance," Koster said. "What's the saying? There's safety in numbers."

Central Valley water officials planned in December to renew the program but decided to wait until June to work out such issues between the farm groups.

The E. coli findings and budget problems mean officials likely will take longer, said Al Brizard, co-chairman of the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, which started the program three years ago.

"So much has happened," Brizard said.

But Mike Lozeau, an attorney representing environmentalists who support the program, said it's taking too long to make the program work.

"Word has it that it's not going to happen until fall," Lozeau said. "In the meantime, we still have acute and chronic toxicity occurring from farms."

Some critics of the program took its struggles as a reason it isn't working.

"What we have is a program that is being recast every time we meet, and fees that are being forced down again and again for a regulatory program out of control," said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission.

Johnson said officials should extend the program as is for five more years and give it time to work.

Brizard, a retired farmer, thinks its kinks can be worked out.

"It doesn't take quantum leaps," Brizard said. "But it's better this month than last month."

Contact reporter Warren Lutz at (209) 546-8295 or

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