"It is going to be a long hot summer" bemoaned Helliker at the annual California Plant Health Association (CPHA) summer regulatory conference. He described the legislative debate going on as "silly and messy."

Helliker’s department is no different from other California agencies. It is facing layoffs and cutbacks of services.

DPR’s budget is $53 million annually and until now 60 percent of that has come from a mill tax on pesticide sales. Helliker has proposed mill taxes and increased fees for licensing and registration pay for it all. He has recommended setting the levy at 27 mills to do that.

"We have been running about 21 to 22 mills, if you factor in the money we have been using from the (mill tax) reserve, which is now gone, "he told the CPHA regulatory conference. The actual mill has been 17.5 while the surplus was erased.

Increasing the mill tax is not popular with agriculture and pesticide retailers. Some have suggested DPR cut back its money needs by relinquishing pesticide registration back to the Environmental Protection Agency.

California is the only state in the nation that does not recognize EPA’s registration for pesticide use in California. All pesticides used in California must also past DPR muster. In the current financial crisis, some has suggested this is redundant, acknowledged Helliker.

Statutes overhaul

For California to abandon its pesticide registration process, however, would require a major overhaul of many state statutes, said the DPR director, who defended California’s stand alone registration process "because the characteristics of agriculture here are different vs. national characteristics."

"I suppose we could do what they do in Mississippi, but probably people would not like that," chided Helliker.

DPR registered 33 new pesticides last year for use in California, the most registered by the department since 1987. California currently has about 920 registered pesticides in approximately 12,000 products.

The DPR revenue issue goes beyond the department to the local county ag commissioners. Many of them are facing county budget cuts and are asking DPR for more money to carry out DPR mandates to monitor pesticide use. Some commissioners have said without additional funds, they will stop providing services for DPR.

DPR now provides funds to ag commissioners and one proposal to get them more money is to raise the mill tax on restricted use pesticides to 45 mills and leave the levy on non-restricted use products at the proposed 27. So far that has not gotten very far in the budget debate. Others have proposed raising the pesticide registration fees beyond what Helliker has recommended to bring in additional funds.

Few are expecting an end to the budget crisis soon. Lawmakers failed to adopt a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline. The result is that Helliker and other DPR administrators will not be paid without a budget, and union workers in the department will only receive minimum wage until a budget is passed by both houses of the California legislature and signed by a governor who is facing a recall.

Contamination issues

Nevertheless, Helliker’s department is facing some tough issues involving surface and groundwater contamination by pesticides.

A volunteer five-year effort to reduce organophosphate discharges into surface water from dormant spray applications has some success, but not enough to resolve the problem, according to Helliker.

Therefore, DPR is developing mandatory controls to reduce dormant spray residues to acceptable levels in surface waters. This will involve buffer zones around irrigation ditches, drainage canals and water bodies that may carry water into a river or tributary. As an alternative to buffer zones, DPR will allow growers to develop alternative water quality management plans to address runoff and drift.

Diazinon has been particularly problematic in meeting water quality standards, and DPR in February placed Diazinon dormant spray use under re-evaluation. Registrants of this organophosphate must now conduct studies to identify how dormant sprays are getting into rivers and streams and identify mitigation strategies to reduce or eliminate diazinon residues in surface water. If solutions are not identified, the department can ban use of diazinon as a dormant spray.

If buffer zones and best management practices fail to reduce all OPs in surface water, the department can designate dormant sprays as "restricted materials" requiring permits and local use restrictions. It can also require registrants to revise labels to further mitigate surface runoff and possibly develop a licensing category for commercial applicators applying dormant spray materials.

Cancel registrations?

DPR could ultimately cancel registration of products as dormant sprays if the residue levels in rivers and streams do not go down.

The department has also proposed new regulations to protect groundwater.

The current "pesticide management zones" (PMZ) covering about 313,000 acres in the state are being replaced by regulations covering 2.4 million acres as "ground water protection areas."

Within these areas, DPR is proposing seven pesticides now listed as contaminants (atrazine, simazine, bromacil, diuron, prometon, bentazon, and norflurazon) require a permit for use within these "ground water protection areas" and that specific use practices be required. However, growers will also have various mitigation options from which to choose.

Protection areas may be designated as "runoff GWPAs" that require proper soil preparation before a pesticide application (such as tilling), or other measures that effectively reduce runoff.

Protection areas may be designated as "leaching GWPAs" if soil conditions allow pesticide residues to move downward with percolating irrigation water.

Mixing, loading, storing, and other activities involving pesticides would be prohibited within 100 feet of water wells, unless they are sited or protected to prevent contamination.

And, all of these things are coming down when DPR is looking at layoffs and draconian budget cuts.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com