SALINAS, Calif. — A new water quality plan by the California Farm Bureau Federation offers an alternative to a state regulatory proposal that some growers have called punitive and costly.

At issue is the expiring conditional waiver of waste discharge requirements, up for a five-year renewal March 17. In California, the waiver shapes policy on the runoff of pesticides, fertilizers and fumigants from irrigated farming.

The federation submitted its plan Dec. 3 to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on behalf of the Ag Working Group. More than a dozen growers’ organizations from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz form the group. Supporters include two grower-shipper associations and Western Growers.

Growers took steps to advance water quality under the prior waiver, the state’s draft order says, but stricter verification is needed. Agriculture, it says, is responsible for 78% of nitrate pollution in groundwater — water that finds its way into hundreds of drinking wells in the region.

Among the provisions of the two plans:

  • The board’s draft order requires all dischargers to submit water quality data certified by a state-registered engineer, geologist, lab or approved third party. It allows board inspectors, by consent or warrant, to go on site to do sampling and monitoring or examine relevant records there.
  • The federation’s alternative calls for confidential, proprietary water quality management plans individualized by farm. Verification would be done by the board or a third party on a statistically significant sample each year, not all operations. Growers would participate in a regional monitoring plan.

“Instead of a punitive approach, this will align growers with research, technology, and assistance so that they can take steps toward making actual improvements to water quality,” Abby Taylor-Silva, vice president for policy and communications at Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said of the federation plan.

“Growers will be given resources and feedback so that they may update growing practices to achieve water quality improvement goals,” she said.

Bob Martin, general manager at Rio Farms in King City, endorsed the proposal.

“This cooperative approach will be more effective and more practical than the proposal from the regional water board staff, which would lead to lost jobs for our workforce and to food safety challenges,” Martin said in a news release.

The board is expected to weigh alternatives to its own draft order at a Feb. 3 meeting in San Luis Obispo.