Monterey County, Calif., growers hope a murky debate over water clarifies in April with minimal effect on crop production.

California water issue stirs debate

Mike Hornick
Staff Writer

Pesticide and fertilizer runoff are at issue as the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board weighs new rules for irrigated farming.

Its decision could leave growers unraveling a tangled web of land-use requirements — and for their efforts, losing money.

Estimates on the acres at stake differ wildly. The state board pegged the maximum that could be lost to new waterway buffers at 154 acres and county officials at 9,438.

It’s a tough chasm to bridge.

For one, it’s not clear how many landowners or leaseholders have scattered parcels — in Monterey or other counties within the region — adding up to 1,000 acres or more.

That benchmark, targeting larger growers, triggers the strictest provisions in the board’s draft order.

Another variable is the multiplier effect of satisfying state- and buyer-imposed mandates.

“There are companies like McDonald’s that require a 200-foot buffer between any vegetation and a crop field,” said April England-Mackie, food safety and farm programs manager for Martin Jefferson & Sons, Castroville, Calif.

“But if water quality regs say we must have a pond and the pond must have vegetation, then we’re losing a lot of our crop land to comply with both.”

“There’s a direct conflict between the (board’s) draft order on vegetative buffers and food quality standards,” said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

“The buffers specify native vegetation and no maintenance. You’ll have an area that’s wildly out of control very close to fields and then have to add your setback for the quality standards. A fair amount of land will be fallowed.”

More problems?

The strictest enforcement tier targets nitrate pollution by eliminating groundwater percolation.

Affected growers would recapture tailwater.

Opponents say aquifers would decline and open a door to saltwater intrusion — a longtime issue in the coastal area.

The groundwater features in the state draft touch the crux of the matter for Tom Am Rhein, vice president of Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers.

“That’s a huge can of worms to be opening up,” he said. “You start getting into property rights and constitutional issues if a regulatory board can control groundwater.”

The new rules, whatever shape they take, will succeed a conditional discharge waiver that’s expiring.

The board meets again in San Luis Obispo in April.

Another option

Still on the table is an alternative, supported by Farmers for Water Quality, among others, that would report efforts collectively rather than farm-by-farm, and would be overseen by a third-party auditor.

Supporters say that would build in a holistic picture of watersheds and keep proprietary information out of the public record.

Monterey County officials say annual crop values there would drop anywhere from $100 million to $167 million under the draft order.


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