Water wars: Little-known rules proposed for the Central Coast...Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Water wars: Little-known rules proposed for the Central Coast are causing a big fight that may be reaching Sacramento
WATSONVILLE -- Pajaro Valley farmer Dick Peixoto minces no words when it comes to a proposed set of water regulations that could play a key role in state budget talks: They will destroy farming in California.
"It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in my life," said Peixoto, whose Lakeside Organic Gardens grows 44 kinds of organic vegetables on 1,200 acres. "It's holding us to a standard that's impossible to attain."
Peixoto is not alone in that view. Large and small farmers throughout the Salinas and Pajaro valleys have spent the past two years warning that the rules threaten agriculture, the top industry in the state and county.
Moving slowly toward a September vote, the rules would radically reshape how farms in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys are regulated, making Central Coast water rules among the toughest -- if not the toughest -- agricultural regulations nationwide.
But those controversial, and largely unknown, rules could still be part of the mix as Gov. Jerry Brown seeks a final budget solution that likely would need at least some Republican support, including possibly from Republicans whose districts include the Central Coast farmlands covered by the proposed rules.
TOUGH NEW RULES
What's at stake? Merely safe drinking water for Californians, the price of putting food on the table, the economic vitality of a $36 billion farming industry, and a decision that should resonate for years, locally and across the country.
The rules propose tough new rules for farmers that aim to eliminate pesticide discharges and limit nitrate runoff and even sediment runoff.
Nitrates, which can enter groundwater through fertilizer, are a nationwide problem and growing point of contention between farmers, regulators and environmentalists seeking to ensure access to safe water. In levels that exceed safe drinking levels -- and a lot of the untreated groundwater beneath the Central Coast does -- nitrates can lead to numerous ailments, including a blood problem known as Blue Baby Syndrome, when an infant's blood is incapable of carrying sufficient oxygen.
The rules also implement a broad monitoring and enforcement program that has farmers up in arms.
While some general monitoring has been done to outline the scope of the problem, the proposed rules also allow the board to keep records on individual farms, and make those records public.
In other words, the rules name names.
Farmers have objected on numerous grounds, and Peixoto's sentiment is a common one. Farmers say it's hard to pinpoint exactly how much farms contribute to the nitrate problem [something many agree with] and that seeking to prevent pesticide runoff amounts to a back door regulation on pesticide use. They worry about costly remedies that could include everything from lining retention ponds to caps on how much fertilizer to use.
"It would be impossible to have zero runoff," Peixoto said.
Those are only a few of the complaints. Mostly, what had emerged since the proposed rules were released is an old-fashioned culture clash: Farmers and environmentalists don't trust each other.
More than 100 groups have weighed in on the proposals, which would affect farms from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz. They include politicians, advocates for farmworkers, the poor and clean water, Monterey Bay caretakers, strawberry growers, small wineries and more.
"Everyone has a dog in this fight, even if they don't know it," said Gary Shallcross, a former member of the obscure board weighing the rules, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. "There hasn't been much press on it, and part of the reason is, it's so complicated."
It wasn't always like this. When the state signaled more than a decade ago that it wanted to get a handle on the water quality problem posed by agriculture, the two sides ventured forward in a spirit of cooperation. Proposals were advanced that helped outline the scope of the problem and begin work on solutions.
But a second set of rules was due in 2009, and with more aggressive rules, things changed. That spirit of cooperation -- forged in part by people no longer part of the debate -- now seems an idyllic memory.
"Everybody looked to the Central Coast as the model," said Danny Merkley, a water quality lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "You have a whole new dynamic, a whole new set of human beings with different values and different perspectives on how the world should work."
Shallcross, a pro-environmental former board member replaced in one of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last acts in office, agrees with Merkley's assessment, even if their outlook on new proposed rules differs.
If passed, the rules would hand environmentalists their biggest victory yet in their battle against nitrates, an issue some say dwarfs the biggest environmental struggles of the past several decades. A win here gives them a pedestal from which to carry the fight nationally.
"These are serious, serious problems. We should be glad to live in a state where it's easier to have your voice heard," said Dipti Bhatnagar, Northern California program director for the Oakland-based Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, stressing that farming must become sustainable.
"We're not interested in type of agriculture that's taking place in the Salinas Valley, which is ridiculously harmful."
Merkley bristles at those kind of sentiments. He said the Farm Bureau is having "high-level" conversations about finding ways to ensure communities have access to safe water. To him, some of the players in the environmental community seem less interested in finding solutions and saving farms, particularly small ones, than in raising money and building their organizations' membership lists.
"They do not understand agriculture," Merkley said. "They do not understand the art and the science of moving water across a field to bring a commodity to market, and all the things that play into that."
Other regional water boards have proposed tough rules, but it's widely acknowledged that the Central Coast rules are the toughest.
In an email, board staff made clear it has no intention of backing down. Supporters say that's because this region grows crops such as strawberries and lettuce that require added fertilizer, which contributes to water problems.
In an email, board staff made it clear it is not backing down, pointing out that Central Coast waterways and groundwater are severely impaired.
"The water board is the only agency with the authority and responsibility to take on this challenge," wrote Lisa McCann, supervisor of the watershed protection section of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
"We must meet this challenge head-on so we can turn from further degradation of our groundwater, our drinking water supplies, and our streams and estuaries, to safe drinking water and a healthy environment. The time to act is now."
As the two sides have become more entrenched, speculation has turned to whether lawmakers in Sacramento would force a solution more favorable to farmers.
Normally, state lawmakers would hold only persuasive authority over the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. In fact, many have weighed in through letters that almost universally criticize the aggressive rules.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, long a supporter of working with farmers cooperatively to develop clean-water strategies, sent his own strong letter.
"I fear that if the board implements the staff's current ... proposal, much of the time, energy and resources that previously went into water quality measures, will instead be channeled into further conflict over practical viability, economic impact and scientific validity of the new proposal itself," Farr wrote in February.
But so far, the board has been unable to vote on the rules. With three vacancies and two members who cannot vote due to conflict-of-interest rules, the board lacks a quorum. And since the governor is tasked with filling those vacancies, Brown could wield vast sway over how the controversy plays out.
Politics already has entered the debate, according to many. On his last week in office, Schwarzenegger replaced Shallcross with a member considered more friendly to agricultural interests. Asked whether he thought the move was a direct response to the proposed rules, Shallcross concurred.
"Oh, definitely," Shallcross said.
Speculation has focused on the two moderate Republican senators representing the Central Coast, Sam Blakeslee and Anthony Cannella. Both have emerged as key figures in the budget debate, seeking Democratic concessions on big issues such as a state spending cap and regulatory reform as a condition of their support.
Brown would need both votes, along with two Republican members of the Assembly, to force through a budget that includes an extension of taxes due to expire June 30. His budget veto last week is likely to renew efforts to win that support.
Weeks ago, members of Brown's staff notified select members of the environmental community that Republicans had placed the Central Coast proposed rules on the table as a talking point during budget discussions, according to several sources familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.
"The Republicans in the state Legislature are really on this," Shallcross said. "This is one of the things they want, from what I understand, in trade for their vote on the budget deal" -- in particular, putting the tax extensions to a statewide vote.
A spokesman for Brown said the governor was working to fill the vacancies, but declined to say whether the agricultural water rules are on the table as a potential piece of the final budget solution.
"That would be a great question for our colleagues across the aisle, but we don't discuss internal budget negotiations," Brown spokesman Evan Westrub said.
Environmentalists are guarding against any Sacramento effort to tinker with the rules. Save Our Shores is asking supporters to sign form letters that are being sent to Brown's office, urging the governor not to negotiate away clean water rules.
"Our understanding is, one of the asks in the budget -- and this is all being done behind closed doors -- is easing up on the ag regulations. And that's real problematic," said Jennifer Cleary of Save Our Shores.
Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate with the Sierra Club, said it wouldn't be the first time environmental rules got caught up in budget deals.
"It gets leveraged in back-room dealings to try to pick off a Republican vote," Metropulos said. "This issue dealing with agricultural runoff in the Central Coast is not something that should rise to the level of budget negotiations."
SAFE AND REASONABLE
During a hectic week in Sacramento, neither Blakeslee nor Cannella were available for comment. But both have signaled that agricultural interests have their ear, mentioning in testimony or correspondence with the board that they have heard from farmers on the issue.
"I am gravely concerned that the increasing level of regulation and mitigation requirements ... will result in the loss of productive agricultural land and will threaten the existence of small farmers and ranchers," Cannella wrote in a letter sent to the board in March.
Cannella is not alone in those sentiments. Even Democratic Assemblymen Luis Alejo of Watsonville, and Bill Monning of Carmel, have questioned the breadth of the rules.
In a statement provided by his staff, Blakeslee said more work needs to be done on the rules.
"An ag ... program must be developed to protect water quality without driving agriculture out of our state," Blakeslee said. "I continue to be concerned that the staff proposal fails to strike the right balance."
Lobbying, of course, is a vital part of any regulated industry, and Merkley doesn't deny that he's spoken with state lawmakers and the highest levels of state government about the issue.
"We're constantly asked by legislators who represent that region, and the governor's office, what's going on down there? What's happening? What's your side of the story?" Merkley said.
The rules remain deeply concerning to farmers, who are floating their own alternative set of regulations that could compete for votes on the board. Several small growers have sent letters to the board claiming the regulations would devastate their operations, or even may be impossible to comply with.
Merkley said the Farm Bureau prefers to work with staff to make the rules more palatable.
"When that fails, sometimes that's your only other option, to raise it to a higher level," he said.
But environmentalists are hoping the board sticks to its guns, with a vote on the rules now scheduled for September.
"We, as a country, as a state, have an obligation to provide water that is safe for families," said Bhatnagar of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. "We don't want farms to go away, but they have to become sustainable."