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Central Coast ag groups talk water quality rules

Lane Wallace, Monterey Herald
3/18/2011

http://www.montereyherald.com/business/ci_17642890?nclick_check=1

Saying proposed state standards for Central Coast farm water quality are arbitrary, agricultural groups Thursday suggested establishing a third party to oversee compliance.

The group, Farmers for Water Quality, would be diverse, have technical expertise and be funded by agriculture, Abby Taylor-Silva of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California told the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The water board met in Watsonville to consider proposed state rules that would update regulations adopted in 2004. Farmers are exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, but must comply with state rules.

A water board staff report said "large stretches of rivers, creeks and streams have been severely polluted by toxicity from pesticides, nutrients and sediment." If the issues aren't addressed, the report said, "the environmental and health effects will become more severe and widespread."

Complaints from farm groups centered on a proposed three-tier enforcement system.

The first tier has less regulation than the 2004 order, the second tier has a similar amount, and the third tier has more regulation because the farms pose the greatest threat to water quality, said Michael Thomas of the board staff.

Monterey County officials challenged a statement by water board staff that buffers between farmlands and waterways would take only 56 acres to 154 acres out of production.

Buffers of 30 to 50 feet would take out 5,663 to 9,438 acres, stated a letter from 3rd District Supervisor Simon Salinas prepared by the county Agricultural Commissioner's staff.

Such a loss would reduce crop values by up to $167 million, said the letter, presented to the water board by Commissioner Eric Lauritzen.

The water board's staff apparently significantly underestimated the acreage by using only certain crops in its estimates instead of the county's crop report, the letter said.

While farmers objected to the regulations, environmental groups favored them or said they don't go far enough.

"We're trying to restore some of the function of our watersheds," said Steve Shimek, representing a coalition of water groups.

While rules could affect farmers, Shimek said, "the impact on people ... has a real cost. It costs in the millions of dollars to treat the water" for drinking.

The growers' proposal would include a review of management practices, a plan to improve water quality and accountability to the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Growers who enter the program would be exempt from the second and third tiers of regulation, unless they don't meet the goals of the growers' group.

After attorney Tess Dunham spoke for Farmers for Water Quality, board member Russ Jeffries, former mayor of Salinas, said, "I wish this had been suggested last July" when the board was discussing the issue.

But neither Jeffries nor three other board members present could vote. They knew in advance they wouldn't have a quorum. There are three vacancies on the nine-member board, and two members couldn't participate because their farm ownership is a conflict of interest.

The board didn't finish its meeting. Not everybody who wanted to talk had a chance. The meeting will be continued in San Luis Obispo at a date to be determined.

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