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Growers, environmentalists square off on proposed water quality rules

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE -- Proposed agricultural runoff regulations drew more than 200 people to a Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting Thursday.

Growers oppose the regulatory plan, arguing it's based on faulty data and imposes arbitrary rules.

Others are seeking tougher regulation, insisting waterways and wells polluted with nitrates from fertilizer and chemicals from pesticides must be cleaned up.

But after more than two years of developing regulations, countless meetings with stakeholders and eight hours of testimony in a packed-to-capacity Watsonville City Council Chamber on Thursday, no action was taken.

After 4 p.m., with cards for 70 speakers still in hand and, more importantly, lacking a quorum, the board decided it needed another meeting. Still, another 20 or so people took the podium to speak before the board called it a day.

"We have divergent perspectives," said board chair Jeffrey Young, summing up a little before 6 p.m. "The board is going to ferret out everything, deliberate and come up with recommendations, and I anticipate by this summer we'll be ready to vote on something."

That something likely won't please everybody, maybe not anybody.

The staff plan calls for grouping farms into three tiers, with the third tier facing the stiffest regulation. Staff said only a small percentage of farmers would land in Tier 3, which includes operations of 1,000 acres or more and that use two pesticides, chloropyrifos and diazinon.

But farming groups, which hired researchers and attorneys to poke holes in the plan, said because the regulations aggregate all the operations of one grower -- even if they are separated by miles -- many would find themselves subject to overly burdensome regulations in Tier 3.

Walnut grower Ann Myhre said in addition to her 45-acre orchard she owns several small properties, but she still thought she'd fall into the least regulated Tier 1 until she considered the small share she has in a family owned property of more than 1,000 acres, 160 miles from her home.

"This seems designed to cost me more time and more money and the intent will ultimately be to take away my historic use of this property," she said.

Growers proposed a plan that would allow them to avoid the board regulations by signing up with a third-party organization, which would audit farm management practices and provide technical advice on how to fix any problems it uncovered.

"It's the only workable solution," said Rick Tomlinson of the California Strawberry Commission.

But speaking for a coalition of environmental groups, Steve Shimek of Monterey Coastkeeper, said the proposed rules didn't go far enough. Growers could shift from diazinon and chloropyrifos to other toxic pesticides to avoid regulation, he said.

"Your role is not to protect lettuce. Your role is not to protect ag. Your role is to protect water," Shimek told the board.

Others talked of the toll on communities. Monica Morales of the Coastal Alliance United For a Sustainable Economy said Central Coast communities had applied to a state fund for more than $61 million in grants to clean up nitrate contamination.

"I've been farming all my life," said Horacio Amezquina, a member of the San Jerardo Cooperative, where a nitrate contaminated well sickened some and left the Salinas Valley farmworker community without potable water. "I think we should put water first because water is the main source of life.

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