Tougher rules for farms
To fight runoff pollution, state water board orders self-policing groups to name members
This article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on June 23, 2006
By Jim Downing, Bee Staff Writer
Water-quality enforcers acted Thursday to ensure the state will be able to identify farmers who discharge water into Central Valley streams, saying a network of voluntary coalitions was not adequately reporting membership or pollution data.
The action by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board significantly strengthens a program intended to reduce the amount of pesticide, fertilizer, and other potentially harmful chemicals that eventually flow into the Delta from farm fields.
Farm groups decried the water board's decision, saying that it will alienate growers who have made a good-faith effort to comply with the program and make it even more difficult to punish polluters.
"They lost sight of what it takes to improve water quality in the state of California," said David Guy, who leads a coalition of Sacramento Valley farmers.
The program, adopted in 2003, required farmers to band together in self-policing "coalition groups," which were supposed to test for contamination in water running off farmland and report violations to the state.
But enforcement has been hampered by spotty reporting and low enrollment, water board staff testified Thursday. In addition, the coalitions did not allow access to their lists of members.
"We do not know which farmer is and is not in the program," said Ken Landau, the board's assistant executive director. "It is a major drain on staff time, and it severely hampers our enforcement efforts."
Consequently, on Thursday, the water board set a Dec. 31 deadline for enrollment in coalitions, and these groups, in turn, will have to identify members annually.
The penalty for not signing up for one of the coalition groups is one-on-one regulation by the state, which means that an individual farmer would bear the full cost of monitoring runoff water.
California is the first state in the nation to begin to regulate farmers as wastewater dischargers.
The state requires virtually all other businesses and cities that release wastewater to pay for tests and report the results to the state.
Environmental groups have acknowledged the program as a step in the right direction but argued Thursday that it is riddled with holes that allow polluting farmers to hide from regulators. They also faulted board staff for not enforcing the agency's own rules.
"There's blatant noncompliance," said Bill Jennings, spokesman for a coalition of nearly 200 environmental groups that called for strengthening the program.
He noted that the board has taken only two enforcement actions - requiring farmers to change their practices - in the three years of the plan. Analyses from both farm and environmental groups report that many water samples have failed to meet state standards.
Board member Christopher Cabaldon said that the board had weakened its enforcement position in the past by trying to please both farming and environmental interests, and he called for the agency to take a firm stand on farmers who do not comply with the law.
"There's very few examples in American society where consequence-free collaboration produces improvements in the environment," he said.
"Given the level of (water-quality) impairment, significant change has got to occur."
Cabaldon's comments seemed to rally the board, which voted 5-2 in favor of the new provisions.
Pamela Creedon, executive director of the water board's staff, vowed to follow through.
"The problem (in the past) is that I don't know if that message has been loud and clear," she said. "It's loud and clear today."
The board also voiced support for extending the pollution-control program to include groundwater in addition to surface streams and rivers. That could happen as soon as 2008, when an environmental review is scheduled to be completed.
During the eight-hour public hearing Thursday, farm groups argued for the need to keep the lists of complying farmers private, although they supported providing an electronic map of the land covered by the coalition groups.
They also argued that a less aggressive approach from state regulators would pay off in the long run.
"Peer pressure is what's going to make these guys change," said Parry Klassen, who leads a coalition of farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.
By Jim Downing, Bee Staff Writer
Contact reporter Jim Downing at (916) 321-1065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.