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Farmers fight new water quality regulations...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Farmers fight new water quality regulations: Proposed regulatory program comes before regional water officials in March

MARINA - Benny Jefferson represents the fifth generation of his family to grow crops on 450 acres along the Salinas River.

Wednesday, he stood on a levee above a detention pond designed to keep runoff from flowing directly into the Salinas River and spoke with pride about his family's stewardship of the land.

His message: Farmers can be trusted to protect the environment, and a regulatory program proposed by the state water quality officials with the aim of keeping agricultural pollutants from waterways is the wrong approach.

"Farmers are the last true environmentalists," Jefferson said. "Without our land, we don't have anything. We know that."

Jefferson spoke during a media tour of his family farm arranged by a coalition of agricultural groups, among them the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.

The pond - really two connected ponds, one to trap sediment and one to filter water - is a case in point, Jefferson said. It collects runoff not only from about 450 acres of his farm, but also from 350 surrounding acres, including a county landfill. The water can't be used for irrigation due to food safety protocols, but it's tapped to keep the dust down on the farm's dirt roads.

His father received a conservation award for establishing the pond two decades ago, Jefferson said, citing its environmental friendliness as, if on cue, a pair of mallards landed in the water.

"This is being played out all over the (Salinas) valley," Jefferson said. "Farmers are working to do everything they can."

But officials with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board said the approach used to clean up waterways during the past six years, which includes industry-funded monitoring, isn't working.

The board's staff released a draft of new rules in November, calling for reduction or elimination of agricultural pollutants and increasingly stringent monitoring programs depending on the size of an operation, its pesticide use, the type of crops grown and its proximity to impaired waterways.

Executive Director Roger Briggs said a public comment period ended in January, and staff is revising the proposal so he couldn't say exactly what it would look like when it comes before the board March 17 in Watsonville.

But Briggs said growers already using good practices and who can show they are meeting water quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shouldn't have a problem.

Growers say the issue should be tackled in a holistic fashion, taking into account not just water quality, but also supply, for example.

They also want the regulatory board to look at watershed quality, as opposed to individual farms, where, just as in Jefferson's pond, runoff may be collected from a variety of sources.

What authorities don't seem to understand is the unique challenge to regulating agriculture, said Abby Taylor-Silva, spokeswoman for the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

"Agriculture is not a spigot coming out of a building," she said.

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