Farmers say their coalitions are making headway on improving surface water quality and the new groundwater regulations are sure to be an even bigger burden, said Parry Klassen, a farmer and executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. Nearly 70 percent of farmers in the Central Valley who have the potential to discharge pollutants into surface water belong to the eight water coalitions.

A survey done by Klassen found that the coalitions spent $31.8 million in grower paid dues between 2004 and 2010 for monitoring, writing reports and grower outreach. And, as a result, Klassen says there have been documented successes in improving water quality on the farms belonging to coalition members over this time span.

 “There is an attitude among growers that we’re just overregulated,” he said. “And this new regulation is going to require us to report on what we’re already doing to protect groundwater. It will dramatically increase the number of new reports we will need to prepare on how we irrigate, fertilize and operate our farms.”

Many farmers are already limiting their use of nutrients, Klassen noted, because of high fertilizer prices in recent years. “There’s nobody out here who can afford to waste fertilizer.”

Nonetheless, environmental groups say the board’s proposed regulations are too weak, because they don’t hold individual farmers accountable.

However, Klassen points out that the Water Board has punished coalition members who have failed to clean up their acts – including a $300,000 fine against an almond grower for discharging sediment, and several fines of $2,000 to $3,000 levied against members for reporting infractions.

Coalitions efforts paying off

Klassen adds that coalition efforts are paying off. Concerning surface water problems: “Our challenges are holding water on the field and managing spray drift. Spray drift is a big contributor to the water quality problems that we are seeing. The problems we are witnessing are very minor but they exceed the 15 parts per trillion standard. We’re not killing fish. Rarely ever do we see fathead minnow toxicity in the smallest fish we test.”

Concerning groundwater contamination, nitrates are the biggest concern, especially among the environmental justice community.  “Nitrate management has to be improved in areas that are vulnerable, if it is needed,” Klassen said. “Irrigation is certainly a component in vulnerable areas if there is over-irrigation. We also have to ensure that nitrate is applied only when the plant can use it and not when it can leach through the soil profile and into groundwater.”

How does Klassen see the June 8 Water Board meeting playing out? He expects the current Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program to be extended another year (it expires in July). The ILRP gives farmers the option to join coalitions rather than obtain individual wastewater discharge permits, as factories, businesses and cities must do. The extension is necessary because the coalitions will not have their new orders that cover groundwater approved for at least a year. When finalized, the regulations and resulting order from the board would go into effect in 2014.

And what is Klassen’s reply to environmental groups that want stiffer compliance regulations enforced against California farmers who might be tempted to skirt the law?

“We have no motivation to lie about what we do on our farms,” he said. “We drink the same water and use it on our crops. And the coalitions were created by farmers to address water quality issues when they are identified, not protect farmers from regulations. It’s preposterous to think that there is widespread fraud as the activists infer, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest this is occurring. We have families too and care about the land and water that is so valuable to our livelihoods.”

That said, buckle your seatbelts. June’s water board hearing promises to be a doozy.