Farm groups seek changes to coast water program


Issue Date: April 25, 2012
By Dave Kranz

Based on violations of state environmental and water laws, the State Water Resources Control Board should set aside new agricultural water regulations for the Central Coast region, according to petitions filed by a coalition of farm organizations. Stressing that they support efforts to enhance water quality in the region, the organizations said the plan adopted last month by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board contains "unlawful requirements" that will "gravely impact" farmers and agricultural businesses in the region, while failing to improve water quality.

Separate, complementary petitions were filed last week with the state water board: one from the California Farm Bureau Federation and seven county Farm Bureaus in the Central Coast region, the other from a coalition composed of Western Growers, the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

All of the organizations participated actively in hearings that led up to adoption of the regulations and collaborated on an alternative plan that would have achieved water quality goals without imposing unnecessary burdens on individual farmers and ranchers.

The petitions say staff of the regional water board did not adequately review the agricultural alternative proposal and therefore presented biased analysis that led the board not to adopt the more effective and reasonable plan.

The plan ultimately adopted by the board never underwent appropriate review of its impacts, according to the Farm Bureau petition. The petition says the new plan will lead to "dramatic and severe impacts on the agricultural industry, which will have a significant effect on the economic and social environment of the region." Those impacts include negative economic consequences, possible elimination of some crops produced in the area, loss of jobs, loss of food supply, loss of prime farmland, loss of wildlife habitat and other social and economic implications.

In its separate petition, the coalition of agricultural groups asks the state water board to halt implementation of the new Central Coast program.

The petition outlines rules violations during the March 15 regional board hearing at which the new regulations were adopted, which prevented farmers and other affected parties from commenting on last-minute changes to the regulations.

In their petitions, the farm organizations ask the State Water Resources Control Board to overturn the regional board's adoption of the agricultural water plan, and to revise the plan to allow farmers to maintain third-party groups that conduct monitoring and other water-quality activities on behalf of individual growers.

The coalition petition notes that regional board staff continually advised board members that the creation of third-party groups did not meet legal standards, even though agricultural organizations contested that opinion. The organizations' petition says the regional board staff "mistakenly characterized" the regional board's authority to establish the groups as well as the state water board's position on the value and legality of such groups in implementing water-quality programs.

That mischaracterization, the petition says, hindered the regional board's ability to consider the more-effective approach contained in the agricultural alternative proposal.

The 71-page Farm Bureau petition cites a series of "actions and inactions" by the Central Coast water board that it asks the state board to review.

For example, the petition says the regional board erred by relying on an environmental study related to the previous Central Coast water plan in determining that no additional review was required for the new plan. The petition cites "fundamental differences" between the previous program, adopted in 2004, and the program adopted last month.

The 2012 program "adds new processes, conditions, requirements and a serious expansion from the current manner of regulation," the petition says.

The regional board further skirted the environmental review process, according to the Farm Bureau petition, by making a number of last-minute changes to the program before its adoption last month.

As a result, the petition says, "the public's ability to provide input, to collaborate with, and to aid in finding solutions to maintain and/or improve water quality is largely restricted and makes it impossible for the public … to fully participate in the assessment of project impacts and alternatives associated with the project."

The Central Coast program also violates state water laws, the Farm Bureau petition says, by dictating how farmers and ranchers must comply with water quality standards.

The new program "does not simply direct (farmers) to improve water quality by complying with a time schedule," the petition says."Rather, (it) specifically states how a (farmer) will comply and what a (farmer) must do on their field."

The program approved last month by the Central Coast regional board establishes a tiered program, requiring individual farmers and ranchers to take specific actions based on size of farm, crop type and other criteria.

"All of these factors have little bearing on relative risk to water quality," the Farm Bureau petition says, adding that "the tiering structure creates a false premise of polluting water unless a grower can prove otherwise."

The Farm Bureau petition was filed on behalf of CFBF plus county Farm Bureaus in Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, all within the regional water board's jurisdiction.

In addition to the petitions from farm groups, three environmental organizations filed a petition with the state board, asking it to impose additional standards for nitrates.

On Friday, the regional water board announced a series of six meetings on the Central Coast at which staff will explain the new requirements; see separate story.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.