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Pollution rules confuse Calif. farmers


FRESNO, Calif. -- Thousands of confused California growers have failed to comply with new state regulations monitoring water pollution from farms.

Regulators, however, are unsure of how to enforce the rules, which environmentalists consider too lax and are challenging them in court.

Between 25,000 and 80,000 growers who have irrigation water or stormwater running off their lands had until April 1 to report what they grow, what pesticides or fertilizers they use and how they will test canals and creeks that eventually empty into the Central Valley's rivers.

Until this year, farms enjoyed a blanket exemption from California's water quality law, which requires businesses and cities to apply for permits to discharge runoff and submit plans to reduce pollution. The State Water Resources Control Board made the exemption conditional under pressure from environmental groups.

Now, to continue getting the waiver, growers have to test water runoff at key periods - during irrigation and after storms - and report findings to their regional water board.

"This is an overwhelming task," regional water official Bill Croyle said of the state's first attempt at monitoring the impact of agriculture - a $27.5 billion dollar industry statewide - on rivers. "But we're committed to getting things up and running."

Local agricultural commissioners, commodity groups and industry leaders have tried to help spread the word to farmers.

Many farmers still don't know about the new regulations. Those who do are either hesitant to sign up for a plan with uncertain costs or think the rules don't apply to them.

"Water is very expensive for us," said Danny Andrews, who farms 2,000 acres of cotton, fruits and vegetables near Bakersfield with his father, Robert Andrews.

The Andrewses don't think the new rules apply to them since they see as little as 5 or 6 inches of rain a year and do their best not to have any runoff.

There are no clearly defined penalties for failing to submit the required plans and data, and no one expects growers to be fined, though the water board will try to reach farmers who have not complied.

"The regional water board has to send notices telling farmers of deadlines," said Tony Francois, director water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "There can be penalties if you refuse, but the regional board has not even sent out those notices."

Farmers can either come up with the monitoring plan themselves, at an estimated cost of at least $2,000 per year after startup costs of up to $10,000, or join a coalition of farmers to share the burden.

Parry Klassen, a Selma farmer on the board of the East San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition, has been answering growers' questions for months. Still, his group has signed up only 1,300 of the estimated 6,000 growers in Merced, Stanislaus, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.

"Those of us who were organizing the coalitions knew this was coming, but some growers have never heard of the plan," said Klassen, who grows peaches and watermelons.

Environmentalists hail the idea of monitoring farms but say the regulations fall short.

"One can't deny that this is a historic step, possibly the most significant step in the nation toward regulating agriculture," said Bill Jennings, of Deltakeeper, a Stockton-based group focused on water quality. "But the failure to grapple with accountability and setting a goal that has to be complied with are the seeds of the plan's own failure."

Deltakeeper sued the water board, along with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Environment California, Natural Resources Defense Council and Ocean Conservancy, alleging the new rules need a compliance goal "with interim milestones and standards."

The program's vague objectives also concern some farmers. No particular chemical or nutrient is targeted, and no specific bodies of water have been identified as a problem.

Only after the first year of monitoring, when pollutants are identified, will the program have a clear target, said Francois.

"This is a very complicated first step down the path of doing water quality regulation for farm operations, and it remains to be seen how well it will work," he said.


On the Net:

Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb5/

Brochure: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb5/programs/irrigated-lands/index.html


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