Water quality board approves new ag rules...Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Water quality board approves new ag rules: Contentious issue likely to face a higher court
SAN LUIS OBISPO - Regional water quality officials rejected a growers' plan to protect wells and waterways from agricultural pollution, but left the door open for reconsideration if revisions are made.
The Central Coast Regional Water Control Board on a 6-0 vote Thursday approved a plan developed and recommended by its staff with last-minute changes that give growers more time and flexibility to comply with rules and relax requirements for control of nitrates - the toxic residue of nitrogen fertilizer.
The rules, debated by agricultural, environmental and public health interests for more than three years, are conditions of a waiver that allows farmers to discharge wastewater from their fields without individual permits.
"There will be opportunities if there are some refinements to open up the order again to make it better," said Vice Chair Russell Jeffries, indicating he was "leaning toward the ag proposal" before casting his vote with the majority.
The final product after dozens of meetings, thousands of comments and hours more of testimony Wednesday met with a muted response from the 100 or so people who came to hear the outcome.
People on both sides of the contentious process predicted the decision would be appealed to the state Water Resources Board and likely litigated in the end.
"We're happy we took a step forward," said Steve Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project. "And it's a big step forward."
But Shimek said environmentalists were disappointed that the board has removed a requirement for farms posing the largest risk to water to balance nitrogen inputs and outputs.
Jennifer Clary, program manager for Clean Water Action, said it's difficult to say how much improvement in water quality the new rules would provide. But she pointed to a requirement for growers to collect and report data on pollutants as a positive.
"The more data we have, the more inspired people are going to be to take action," Clary said.
Abby Taylor-Silva of the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association expressed disappointment that the board didn't accept a plan put forth by Farmers for Water Quality, a coalition of state and regional agricultural groups, including the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.
The grower plan stressed measurable improvements, coalition-based projects and third-party evaluation, monitoring and reporting to ensure anonymity and protect proprietary information.
Their plan, the most likely to create the "collaborative, innovative" solutions, was the best option, Taylor-Silva said.
She said it would take some time to review changes designed to encourage growers to return with alternatives that better met the goals of improving the quality of drinking water, wildlife habitat and recreational resources.
Reporting to the board before the vote, staff listed a series of "pros" of the grower plan, including the ability of coalitions to assist with such tasks as education, outreach, inspection and incentives, as well as being able to facilitate projects.
But there was also a long list of "cons," including the lack of key indicators of pollution and practice effectiveness, a lack of criteria to make farms posing the most risk a priority, deadlines for improvement too far out and an unresponsiveness to the threat to human health. Staff also questioned the legality of some provisions.
The adopted plan provides for a tiered program that focuses most closely on large farms using specific pesticides, growing crops with high nitrogen loads and operating near polluted waterways.
Michael Johnston, a recently appointed board member from Watsonville and a Teamsters consultant, proposed language to create a framework for making the grower plan an acceptable alternative, language that was adopted by the board. That would establish a technical advisory committee to review alternatives and permit either the executive director or the board to adopt them.
But the board rejected Johnston's call to stay "until midnight" to try to revise the grower plan so it could be folded into the new waiver as an alternative.
Michael Jordan, another new board member from Santa Barbara, said the adopted plan already contained significant concessions to agriculture.
Before the vote board Chairman Jeffrey Young called the staff recommended plan a "great proposal." He said he'd seen "a lot of contentious issues" during his public service.
"In three months, in six months, you will probably look back and say what all the fuss was about," Young said.