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Shifting Ground for Water Quality Regulation Demonstrates Need for Conservation in California’s Salinas Valley

April 4, 2012


By Gary Peterson

(Editor’s note:  We thank Gary Peterson, Development and Communications Director with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), an NSAC member organizations, for reporting on recent developments concerning agriculture and water quality in California’s Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay region.  ALBA brings a unique perspective to this issue with its mission to advance economic viability, social equity and ecological land management among limited-resource and aspiring farmers.  Many of these farmers and their families live in communities that are directly affected when local water sources are contaminated, especially groundwater used for drinking water, farmers who can also adopt ecological land management techniques to help protect the quality of water in the region.)

For many years, the agricultural communities of the Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay regions of California have responded to evolving regulatory mandates for water quality protection.  For more than six years, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has conducted bilingual outreach and education to engage Spanish-speaking farm operators in discussion and understanding of the regulatory issues.  A key role for ALBA as a beginning farmer training and farm business incubator is to help growers understand and adapt to regulations.  ALBA has also worked with strong and diverse partnerships looking for solutions, including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is a vital partner with growers facing unprecedented measures for regulatory compliance.

Farmers, regulatory agencies, and environmental advocates have taken strongly held positions on the issues of nitrate levels in groundwater and pesticides and other contaminants from agriculture in surface waters.  The issue of environmental contaminates also became a food safety issue in the region in 2008, when the discovery of leafy greens contaminated with virulent bacteria led to a call for more stringent food safety practices.

Nitrates in Groundwater

The economic benefits of agriculture to the region are significant, with Monterey County alone exceeding $4 billion in annual agricultural production.  But it is also clear that the sandy loam soils that make this economy possible also allow nitrates used in agricultural production to reach the water table.

Under California’s water quality regulations, growers until recently could file for a conditional waiver from regulation for pollutant discharge from irrigated lands.  There were two choices for compliance under the waiver: (1) the grower could conduct individual on-farm water quality monitoring and reporting; or  (2) the grower could enroll and pay for cooperative monitoring of regional surface waters.  Nearly every agricultural operation in the region choose the cooperative monitoring regime because the individual monitoring approach included gathering information about individual operations.

But in March, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), the regulatory body overseeing water quality in the region, concluded that the conditional waiver option for irrigated lands was not sufficient to improve water quality.  The day before the meeting, the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis released a report entitled Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water: With a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater.  The report paints a stark picture for the public, finding that more than one quarter million people in the study areas are at risk of significant adverse health effects from nitrate contamination in drinking water.  Fully 96% of the nitrate contamination originates on cropland and has been accumulating for decades.  Even immediate action would only begin to alleviate groundwater contamination years from now.

Synthetic fertilizer represents the largest single input, and leaching to groundwater is a greater nitrate output than the nitrate uptake by crops.  In the study areas, it was found that 57% of the population is, or has been, exposed to nitrates in excess of the maximum contaminant level of 45 milligrams per liter, as nitrate.  In the Salinas Valley, it is estimated that providing safe drinking water from groundwater would cost $36 million per year for the next 20 years, nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. Recommended methods for dealing with the nitrate contamination include mixing deeper, cleaner water with contaminated groundwater sources, creating a fertilizer mill tax to fund mitigation programs and discourage overuse, and conducting grower outreach and education on minimizing fertilizer inputs.  None of the methods is widely accepted as providing a full solution and all are expensive.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board determined that the nitrate contamination is the largest public health threat the Board has ever had to address and the Board also found that pesticides and other contaminants needed to be controlled.  The Board took action by proposing that the cooperative monitoring approach be scrapped and replaced by a three-tiered conditional waiver that would require verification of individual compliance with discharge requirements.  This hit growers hard.

In response, the region’s agricultural industry launched efforts to build bridges with various stakeholders, private philanthropy invested in facilitated dialogue among growers and environmentalists, and local academics were engaged to offer an alternative approach that looked much like cooperative monitoring.  But, after listening to hours of public input about how to deal with water quality and agriculture, the Board voted unanimously at its March 22, 2012 meeting to approve a new agricultural discharge waiver program, with a few amendments.

The process for establishing compliance with the agricultural waiver is becoming clearer and it is challenging.  ALBA has learned that its compliance costs, for our 150 certified organic acres under cultivation, will likely exceed $7,000 per year.  The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board has created a three-tier system to alleviate pressure on the smallest operators, but with its overall size ALBA appears to be in Tier 2.  Water quality testing will be required in domestic and irrigation wells, as well as receiving water, or surface flows.  Photo monitoring may be required for documenting riparian habitat and persistent erosion.  All these factors and more are to be analyzed in an annual compliance document that defines the risks of nitrate loading along with plans to mitigate those risks.  While costly and time-consuming, ALBA is proceeding with its own compliance while leveraging its experience to help small and beginning farmers to also comply.

Food Safety and Conservation

The relation between food safety and water quality is also an issue of concern for growers of all types and sizes.  In 2010, Congress enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act that provides for food safety measures including on-farm measures.  The federal Food and Drug Administration is in the process of implementing regulations for the Act.  USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reported to area growers that it had communicated its concerns to the federal Food and Drug Administration about the potential impacts on conservation practices of food safety measures intended to reduce the risk of contamination of growing crops.  Commonsense conservation practices for protecting water quality, like grassed waterways and riparian buffers, are viewed by some as habitat for wildlife that could carry human pathogens.  Vegetation in or near waterways is increasingly seen as an intolerable risk for contamination of growing crops. This viewpoint prevails despite the fact that almost all animal species, with the exception of wild pigs, have very low risk of transferring human pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7 to fresh produce in the field. And, the removal of buffers and vegetation could well lead to a decrease in surface water quality.

Salinas Valley growers and residents face unsettling questions as the regulatory ground shifts beneath California agriculture.  Will national grocers and other players in the food supply chain pass along a price premium for regulatory compliance that can help growers meet the costs of regulation?  Will rural residents be provided with public resources to mitigate nitrate contamination of drinking water from community sources and individual wells?  Can research help inform policies needed to achieve the appropriate balance between conservation and food safety – both of which are critical to sustainable food production?  The ground is shifting beneath California agriculture and farmers will need sound conservation assistance to stay on their feet.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety


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