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Proposed rules seek to clear agricultural pollutants from waterways

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Donna Jones

Aiming to clean up some of the most toxic water in California, regional water quality officials are considering new rules to control polluting runoff from agricultural fields.

Growers say the regulations are too burdensome, and countered last week with a proposal to have an industry-backed coalition tackle water quality problems.

Environmentalists say neither plan does enough to protect water supplies.

After more than two years in development, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board will consider adopting the new regulations in March.

Executive Officer Roger Briggs said board staff sought to create a plan that would be practical and hold people accountable.

"Things are getting worse," Briggs said. "We know if there's not some teeth behind it, it's too easy for people to blow it off."

Briggs pointed to preliminary results of a study of surface water released last month. The results showed a greater percentage of water samples from the Central Coast were highly toxic than anywhere else in the state.

Statewide, 7 percent of samples were highly toxic, as compared with 22 percent of samples on the Central Coast, an area that stretches from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara.

The study, which tested toxicity by looking at the survival rate of aquatic creatures placed in samples, showed no to low toxicity in samples from the Santa Cruz area, and low to moderate toxicity in the Watsonville area.

Water samples from the Salinas Valley were among the worst on the Central Coast.

Samples taken from agricultural areas, as opposed to urban or undeveloped areas, also were more likely to be highly toxic.

The staff plan, a draft of which is open for public comment until Jan. 3, calls for reduction or elimination of agricultural pollutants and increasingly stringent monitoring programs depending on a farming operation's size, its pesticide use, the type of crops it grows and its proximity to impaired waterways.

Strawberry grower Tom Am Rhein, stressing that he spoke only for himself not for his industry, doesn't dispute that agriculture is responsible for some water quality problems, "some more serious than others." And he said they need to be fixed.

But Am Rhein argues the board staff's plan sets unattainable water quality goals, and is "so complex so as to be unenforceable."

"It wastes financial resources and delays implementation of real solutions," Am Rhein said.

The industry proposal calls for growers to enroll in water quality coalitions, which would survey farming practices, link growers with researchers to work on improving water quality, and focus on monitoring watersheds rather than individual growers.

"It's difficult to make conclusions by looking at one farm at one point in time," said Abby Taylor-Silva, spokeswoman for the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Steve Shimek, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Monterey Coastkeeper, said cleaning up polluted water can't be a voluntary effort. Agricultural discharges must be regulated to keep toxins from pesticides and nitrates from fertilizers out of public water supplies, he said.

Shimek approves of putting the focus on the most significant dischargers, but said all farmers must clean up runoff. He worries the board's plan contains loopholes, singling out specific pesticides for special attention, for example. Growers could switch to less monitored chemicals, he said.

"We feel agriculture has every right to water, but they don't have a right to discharge their garbage into our water," he said. "The toxics and the nitrates have tremendous potential to impact human health if unregulated."
At a glance

WHAT: Comment on draft regulations aimed at keeping agricultural pollutants from waterways
WHEN: By Jan. 3
WHERE: E-mail or write the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, 895 Aerovista Place, Suite 101, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401-7906

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