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Ag needed more time on water-quality reports

This editorial appeared in the Modesto Bee on June 27, 2006

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board did not grant farmers permission to pollute. It did not roll back environmental protection laws or doom all the fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Instead, the water board acted reasonably in giving farmers more time to meet the reporting requirements of an important clean-water law.

Since 2003, agriculture has operated under a waiver to report on the quality of water that runs off fields. Thursday, the board voted to extend that waiver for five years. That additional time should help smart farmers figure out how to comply with the law. It will give the agriculture industry the opportunity to find lasting, workable solutions for meeting the requirements of Senate Bill 390, a clean-water law passed in 1999.

Delaying implementation of SB 390 recognizes that the overwhelming majority of farmers want to do the right thing. Voting to extend the waiver helps them do it.

Passing the waiver wasn't easy. More than 200 people attended the board's Thursday meeting, filling the boardroom and an overflow room. Before voting 5-2 to extend the waiver, the board heard nearly eight hours of testimony mostly from people concerned about the environment and the health of people living in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The environmentalists' intentions were noble, and their concerns genuine and justified. But revoking agriculture's waiver only would create turmoil in farming communities throughout the valley. It would not force agriculture to move more quickly.

The board oversees the water-regulation compliance of 1,500 to 2,000 businesses, cities and other entities. It was the Central Valley board that forced Hilmar Cheese Co. to comply with water regulations it had ignored for years.

There are 25,000 to 40,000farmers working 7million acres of irrigated land in the region. Enforcing SB 390 would increase the board's workload twentyfold. It is smarter to urge farmers to find their own solutions.

That was the purpose of two conditions placed on the extension. The first identifies all farmers as water dischargers unless they can show otherwise. In the next few years, the board will provide relief through "deminimis" waivers for small hobby farms and ranchettes.

The second condition will help identify which farmers are trying to comply. To track runoff, farmers either can get a permit or join a coalition that monitors the fields of its members. There are eight major coalitions in the region, based on various watersheds. In the past, the coalitions wanted to keep their membership lists private, but that no longer will be allowed.

Water regulations for most California industries began in 1982. Farming was left out until 1999, when SB 390 set a deadline of 2003. When it became clear ag couldn't meet it, the waiver was established.

The five-year extension could be revisited sooner.

Hopefully, another waiver won't be necessary. The solutions for protecting California's most vital resource, water, are at hand; we trust that farmers will have enough time to find them.

Our Point

Waiving enforcement of runoff-reporting requirements for agriculture was an appropriate and wise decision by the regional water board.

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