Organic byproducts from fruits such as tomatoes and peaches were introduced onto farmland in the area, helping to enrich the soil and saving canneries the cost of disposing of the waste. However, around 2005 the regional water board became concerned the compost material might contaminate groundwater in the area. The board intended to treat the material as “industrial waste,” according to Sonya Harrigfeld, Director of Environmental Resources for the county. The board initially wanted expensive testing to take place to measure the composting program’s impact on groundwater  – action the county maintained wasn’t necessary.

“The (initial) concern the regional board had was the nitrogen level in food-processing byproducts (that might seep into groundwater),” Harrigfeld said. “And we said, ‘Hold on, the percent nitrogen available isn’t even close’” to the levels necessary to pose a risk.

The water board’s groundwater testing requirements would have been extremely expensive, according to Harrigfeld. That threatened to end participation in the program by canneries, which instead would have had to pay fleets of trucks to carry fruit pits, juice and skins to distant dumps.

“You have two conflicts; the integrated waste management board not wanting waste to go into the landfill, the water board worried about groundwater, and now potentially the issue of air quality being affected,” Noel said.

The threat of losing the program resulted in significant outcry by farmers and canneries - a 2007 report authored in part by Professor Sean Hurley, a colleague of Noel’s at CalPoly, said some canneries were considering leaving the county if the money-saving recycling program didn’t continue.

The water board’s position was protested by the county, which was able to compile data showing the board’s concerns regarding the risks posed to groundwater were largely unfounded, Harrigfeld said. The board ultimately granted a conditional waiver that allowed the program to continue with less expensive testing requirements than had been originally proposed.

Not all conflicts caused by the state’s environmental rules involve purely environmental matters. According to Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, water regulations proposed by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board include one rule that runs counter to industry health and safety practices.

The water rules proposed by the board were set to be considered Sept. 1. (The proposal has since been postponed due to a lack of a quorum of members that can vote on the issue.) The rules have been a source of ongoing controversy, and would impact farmers throughout the Central Coast region, an area stretching from Santa Clara County to the north and Santa Barbara County to the south. The prospective regulations are largely concerned with water contamination that comes from agriculture, including pesticides and fertilizers. One of the requirements being considered would mandate that some farmers maintain 30 to 50-foot buffers of vegetated land between portions of their crop acreage and certain adjacent bodies of water. The buffers would protect water from contamination from farms.

 “That (requirement) in and of itself poses a conflict with food safety concerns,” Quandt said. “We’ve been told we need to start eliminating these vegetative areas for food safety purposes.”