KUSP Reports: Environment

Farmers Fear Runoff Rule Unfairly Targets Individuals

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Farmer Dirk Giannini points out irrigation installed on a seeded lettuce bed. New regulations put greater pressure on farmers to limit pollution running off their fields. Photo: Danielle Venton

By Danielle Venton | KUSP News

A new law is phasing into effect that changes how farmers manage water on their farms. It’s designed to cut down on water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and nutrients. But, while farmers say they want to be good environmental stewards, they claim the new regulations go too far.

Dirk Giannini is a prominent Central Coast farmer. It seems everything in his life is big. He’s tall, he has a large truck, he grows 3500 acres of carrots, onions, and other crops.

He sells to some of the biggest buyers in the country. Last year he was one of McDonald’s featured farmers, and appeared in a national TV add.

Hot Topic

Giannini’s crops are irrigated with well water. Water that’s not absorbed by crops or the ground is mostly caught in a pond, where it can be pumped and re-used. But during heavy rains, some of water inevitably leaves his fields and enters local streams and rivers. That water is the focus of tough new regulations aimed at stemming water pollution.

“It’s the most rigorous law that our region is facing right now,” Giannini says. “And it’s the hot topic.”

The rules, known as the “Agricultural Order,” guide how farmers manage and reports water quality on his farms. The regulations are renewed every five years, and allow farmers to legally comply with the Clean Water Act. It’s an important piece of legislation since, according to the EPA, agriculture is the nation’s biggest source of water pollution. are slowly phasing into effect. While most farmers are complying, almost all of them are unhappy about it. Some academics are too, including Marc Los Huertos, an environmental studies professor at California State University, Monterey Bay

“It’s a little bit like putting your trash out in the front yard and then having someone decide they were going to investigate it all and put it on the web,” Los Huertos says. “It just seemed pretty intrusive.”

Rules May Punish Those Who’ve Done the Most to Clean Runoff

Los Huertos helped growers propose an alternate plan to the water board, one that emphasized collective monitoring and allowed reporting information to remain private. The requirement for some farmers to publicly report pollution levels is a key point of the new regulations and possibly it’s most controversial.

Growers worry that if members of the public can access pollution records, farmers will become targets of unjust criticism. It’s the larger growers who, Los Huertos says, tend to be doing the most to improve water quality who’ll bear the brunt of this.

“Now they have to do all this extra reporting that likely is going to show significant amounts of pollution without any kind of context of their farm,” he says. “Yet they’ve been spending the most money to improve water quality in the last 10 years.”

But regulators say the law had to change. Central Coast streams and rivers are some of the most impaired in the nation and they want to protect water for people and wildlife. The previous order, they say, just didn’t give them enough information. Lisa McCann is overseeing the new order’s implementation. She says there was anecdotal evidence that many people were doing good things, but says, “our evidence for what level, where, how effectively, was absent.”

Many parts of the growers’ proposal were accepted, not all. As for the key point of contention – public reporting – it’s already state law, a relatively recent one.

“Ultimately the main reason it still wasn’t ripe is it wasn’t consistent with some aspect of the California water code and the state’s policy on non-point pollution
control,” McCann says.

Regs Aim for Improvement, not Perfection

She says that some farmers are over-worried about the new regulations. Regulators want to see pollution improving overtime, they’re not expecting that water leaving farms will be drinkable. But the new requirements still seem heavy handed to farmers like Giannini.

“I agree with regulations and checks and balances, but usually regs are for low hanging fruit, the people who are not complying. This is affecting every farmer in the region.”

Some of the Agricultural Order has begun taking effect, including, as of March, a requirement that growers install devices preventing contaminated water from backflowing into their fresh water supply.

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