“We are from the government, and we are here to tell you how to farm,” was the unspoken yet clear, dismal message repeated often at the Sustainable Ag Expo in Monterey, Calif.

Sponsored by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, the Expo speakers’ program was a parade of mostly regulators and lobbyists, who painted one depressing picture after another for California farmers.

It has been estimated that California farmers pay as much as $400 per acre in regulatory costs now to produce food and fiber in the Golden State.

After listening to a covey of regulatory bird dogs relate what is coming down, there’s little doubt those costs will continue to go up significantly for farmers. If the regulators succeed in forcing farmers on the Central Coast to dramatically change the way they farm, the question becomes: Will it be worth it to continue farming?

Most of the pending regulations discussed at the Expo focused on protecting water, specifically surface water coming off of farms and leaching into the groundwater.

California farmers now must comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, which basically means all waterways in the state and groundwater basins contain water pure enough to drink.

This has prompted the creation of nine regional water quality control boards in California. The one covering the Central Coast has regulatory authority over two of the most intensively farmed areas in the nation: the area around Santa Maria, Calif., and in the Salinas Valley. These two areas produce the majority of the nation’s summer vegetables and are a major strawberry producing area.

As part of the new water regulations, surface and groundwater are both being monitored. It didn’t take long to identify high levels of nitrates and pesticides in both surface and groundwater in these areas.

According to Lisa McCann of the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, nitrate levels and pesticide levels in some groundwater exceeded safe drinking water standards levels by 10 times. The Salinas River was identified in this monitoring as one of the most polluted rivers in the state. McCann’s maps of water monitoring in the two areas left little doubt that there is a major problem with literally hundreds of sites showing high levels of nitrates and pesticides in the water. There are 44,000 domestic wells in the area and undoubtedly many abandoned wells.

The Central Coast board has already implemented regulations to start dealing with the issue. They are the most stringent among the nine regional boards in the state. They include requirements that farmers must:

  1. Submit a notice of intent (NOI) (mandatory Jan. 1). This is much like the report growers now submit for pesticide use. It is a 14-point checklist that includes water management plans not dissimilar than what is now required for pesticide applications.
  2. Take 15 hours of courses in water quality management.
  3. Prepare and implement a water quality management plan.
  4. Perform individual monitoring or participate in a group monitoring program.

The Central Coast region has approximately 435,000 acres of irrigated land and approximately 3,000 agricultural operations, which may be generating wastewater that falls into the category of discharges of waste from irrigated lands.

The Central Coast region has more than 17,000 miles of surface waters (linear streams/rivers) and approximately 4,000 square miles of groundwater basins that are, or may be, affected by discharges of waste from irrigated lands.