Nitrate report recommends new fees on farmers

Issue Date: February 27, 2013
By Steve Adler

In a report released last week, the State Water Resources Control Board outlined 15 actions intended to address the issue of nitrates in drinking water.

The state board also stressed the need to establish a new funding source to finance the implementation of its recommendations, saying potential funding sources "include a point-of-sale fee on agricultural commodities, a fee on nitrogen fertilizing materials, or a water use fee."

The far-reaching recommendations will be forwarded to the state Legislature, where nine bills have already been introduced dealing with nitrates and fertilizer use.

The report—entitled "Recommendations Addressing Nitrates in Groundwater"—came 11 months after a University of California report that said nitrate problems in California will continue to worsen for decades, and which pointed to agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes applied to croplands as the largest sources of nitrates in groundwater.

Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director, noted that clean water is a high priority for everyone, especially people who live in rural areas and depend on groundwater for domestic use.

"Most farmers live where they work and want to be certain that they, their families, their employees and their neighbors have access to safe water," he said. "Farmers and ranchers carefully manage the products needed for successful production of their crops, including nitrogen fertilizers. Farmers are constantly adopting and implementing new management techniques for application of nitrogen-based fertilizers."

Farm organizations point out that much of the nitrates present in groundwater today relate to practices that are no longer used, and note that local agricultural water-quality programs and regional water-quality boards have been working to address nitrates for many years.

Farmers are concerned about the proposed fees, Merkley said, particularly in light of high assessments relating to fertilizer use that they already pay. Just a year and a half ago, farmers saw more than $24 million in new state water board fees, which included a 354 percent increase for the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, he said.

"This is a death by a thousand cuts, and these fees do not include the costs of compliance with water quality programs. Costs vary widely among commodities and regions, but can include acreage coming out of production for settling ponds, setbacks and buffer zones, new technology infrastructure, consultants, paperwork and more," he said. "Farmers are not asking to relax environmental protections, but for a practical and cost-effective approach to programs instead of just tacking on new fees."

Fertilizer users already pay an assessment on every California fertilizer sale to fund research and education on the use and handling of fertilizers. The assessment recently doubled to the maximum amount allowed in support of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer Research and Education Program.

Merkley said that Farm Bureau will continue to participate in discussions about other sources of funding to assure solutions for people whose drinking water is affected by nitrates at levels above those considered safe for human consumption.

"Farm Bureau will remain actively engaged in the Governor's Drinking Water Stakeholder Group, which has made several recommendations to assist economically disadvantaged communities with their drinking water supplies," he said.

Farm Bureau and other organizations support a bill before the Legislature to help economically disadvantaged rural communities by providing up to $2 million to develop a plan to address their drinking water and wastewater issues.

In its report, the state water board listed a number of administrative actions that it said could begin immediately, including:

  • Regional water boards will identify nitrate high-risk areas where regulatory oversight and assistance efforts can be prioritized.
  • The water boards, in coordination with CDFA, will convene a stakeholder/expert group to review existing agricultural best practices concerning nitrates, and develop recommendations intended to further protect groundwater quality.
  • CDFA will establish an interagency task force in collaboration with the state water board to assess nitrogen management tracking and data needs in high-risk areas.
  • CDFA, in partnership with the University of California Cooperative Extension and other experts, will develop additional nitrogen management technical training programs to provide growers with on-the-ground tools and to aid in regulatory compliance.
  • CDFA will work with experts to identify research gaps in understanding the movement of nitrogen and other nutrients through soil and groundwater systems, and establish a research collaborative to pursue funding sources for the research.

"Farmers support the water board's recommendation for continued research to fill gaps in knowledge about nitrates and nitrate management, and on providing farmers with the latest management techniques," Merkley said.

"This is an emotionally charged issue, but good solutions require cool heads and sound decision making," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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

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