Though many California Central Coast growers are still scrambling to comply with the new conditional ag waiver discharge program recently implemented by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, administrators are heralding the program's acceptance and early success.

Alison Jones, the RWQCB environmental scientist in charge of the program, said there is still some confusion among the ag community, and initial reactions varied, but overall she's pleased with how the program is going.

“We've fielded about 600 calls,” Jones said. “There are an estimated 2,500 farmers, some of who were really confused and some who were ready to go so it really varied a lot.”

Jones, along with some growers, thinks the process has been confusing. Some growers believe there was not enough notice, or enough information going out soon enough. That sentiment seems to be changing, but there is still a lot of confusion and many acres not yet registered.

According to Jones, there are two primary reasons for the delay in getting the program going: the first was the magnitude of the entire waiver program and the second was the regional board's desire to build a cooperative ag waiver program.

Jones said the Central Coast Regional board had 22 different waivers to deal with and was initially more focused on the other waivers. She was assigned to develop the ag waiver program in mid-2002.

“Realizing the magnitude and how contentious the issue was in the Central Valley, and how proactive ag was in this area, we all agreed that we needed to take our time and do it right.” Jones said.

Advisory panel

According to Jones, “doing it right” meant building on already existing programs and getting growers, regulatory agencies, and ag and environmental groups to agree on how the waiver should be applied. This was assisted by the formation of an Agricultural Advisory Panel in February 2003. The panel included agricultural and environmental representatives from across Region 3 which includes San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Ventura counties.

“We took our time and put together meetings with ag and environmental representatives and tried to come up with some recommendations for conditions that would be acceptable to the ag community but also satisfy the environmental groups,” Jones said.

The panel was able to reach a consensus on many issues, such as education and farm water quality plan requirements. They also agreed that monitoring should focus on existing agricultural constituents, use existing resources whenever possible and be structured as a cooperative, rather than monitoring program. The group was unable to agree on how the monitoring program should work or how to address groundwater and storm water issues.

But overall, Jones said the process was a success.

“We think it's a model program. We said let's get both sides together and find some areas of agreement so that's what we wanted to do and that's what we did,” Jones said.

Most in favor

Jones added that almost everyone on the panel spoke in favor of the waiver. “I think that's huge for the ag advisory to say, ‘yes we want you to adopt this program not because it's perfect but because it's workable.’”

But even though reaching a consensus is good, it is also what delayed its implementation and possibly added to the confusion.

“The success of the thing is because so many groups are involved, which makes it stronger but it also makes it more confusing,” Jones said.

Pebble Smith, a grower and also the Central Coast grower relations manager for Fetzer Vineyards and on the board of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT) is all in favor of the program but believes the time frame growers were given to comply was a little short.

“I think they probably could have gotten the word out a little better,” Smith said. “I think there's just been a lot of confusion with the whole process. It's a monumental task and they have a really small staff and so far, they've just been feeling their way along.”

According to Jones, the regional board began attempting to inform growers in the fall of 2003 using mailing lists developed from pesticide use reporting permits filed with the ag commissioners' offices. The regional board has also relied on special interest groups such as the CCVT and county Farm Bureaus to publicize information.

Carl Wynne, of Wynne Almond Orchards in Paso Robles, is also in favor of the plan but said he only had a few weeks to comply with the Jan. 1, 2005 deadline.

“I received a letter (about the ag waiver program) from the Regional Water Quality Control Board just a few weeks before the deadline,” Wynne said.

Slow to comply

Dave Wineman, viticulturist for Hampton Farming Co. in Santa Barbara County, said he has been following the development of the waiver for a few years. Everyone at Hampton Farming has completed Tier 2 requirements and only need to complete their education requirements to be in full compliance. But he's heard that some haven't complied simply for fear of the unknown.

“I think a lot of them (growers) haven't complied because they aren't sure what it's going to lead to,” Wineman said, which, he added, is the best reason to get involved.

“We have a unique opportunity, because this is a cooperative process, to get involved and help shape the design and implementation of the process. We, as growers, are learning and the regional board is learning, so as things come up if you have the cooperative process in place, you have a better opportunity to deal with it than if it's just mandated by the regulatory hammer.”

Wineman and Smith agreed many growers are upset simply because this waiver process just means more paperwork.

“I think that most growers are respectful of the intent but basically, farmers hate bureaucracy,” Smith said. “Growers are busy. This is just more paperwork and a lot of guys don't like giving up their time for that.”

Regardless of how the process has been handled, Smith thinks the ag waiver program will be good for farming and the environment.

“Having a clear farm plan is something every farmer needs to do. I think it will give us some good tools to work with,” he said.

But despite the regional board's best efforts, many growers have not complied.

There are 434,000 irrigated acres in the Central Coast region and as of February, slightly more than 50 percent were registered. Jones said that number exceeds the board's target of getting 50 percent registered by January 2005, but still leaves more than 200,000 acres out of compliance.

Requirements

She is hopeful the spirit of cooperation will prevail and all growers will voluntarily comply. Growers and operators must not only file paperwork, they must implement the suggested management changes and meet the Farm Plan requirements. The monitoring data must also show a marked improvement in the water quality over the next five to 10 years.

“Enforcement may not be totally easy to implement,” Smith admitted. “The ag waiver probably won't have any teeth until an inspector comes out and looks at someone's farm plan.”

Jones said there will be enforcement against those who “knowingly disobey the regulations” (i.e., do not enroll or cause water quality problems without trying to address them). However, “for the rest, the regional board will work with growers who are making a good faith effort to improve practices if there is a problem, rather than resorting to enforcement.”

The regional board is still reviewing submittals but plans to begin soon identifying those who haven't enrolled.

“One of the important points to remember is that this program is being watched carefully,” Jones said. “If it is successful — that is, if the vast majority of farmers are participating and we begin to see water quality improvement — it is unlikely that additional regulation will need to occur.”