Several attorneys who focus on California food and agriculture issues believe there is good reason for the private and public sectors to work together to quickly find a mutual solution on the controversial nitrate-groundwater issue.

Attorneys with the Sacramento, Calif. law firm Downey Brand suggest that if the issues are left to existing regulatory structures and inadequate funding mechanisms that a failure to reach an early comprehensive answer could lead to significant short- and long-term consequences for California agriculture.

This could include stricter regulation on cultural practices and costly litigation borne by agriculture.

Nitrates in California groundwater is a deer-in-the-headlights issue, following the release last year of a University of California study which claims nitrates found in groundwater contaminate drinking water.

The study pointed at agriculture as a major source of nitrates, tied to the application of nitrogen fertilizer in crop production.

Nine regional water quality control boards in California are working on surface and groundwater quality protection programs with farmers.

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Stephen Meyer, chairman of the Downey Brand food and agriculture practice, says the UC study has unleashed a major push to enact regulations and taxation to fund the additional treatment of nitrates in drinking water systems, and/or provide alternative sources of water.

Meyer believes agriculture and those who supply the industry are targets to help fund cleanups and alternative water supplies. Agricultural companies with the highest financial risks include fertilizer manufacturers, suppliers, and dealers. Large dairies and feedlots are also potential targets. Farmers and consumers will also pay a price.

Attorney Greg Broderick, a Downey Brand partner, said, “It is critical that all parties involved develop a solution which everyone can live with. Otherwise, we are left with the existing regulatory and litigation models which are not suited for this type of contamination.

If a consensus is not reached, Broderick says to expect more regulatory oversight and costly litigation. He believes it is better to arrive at solutions so that money and resources are spent in solving the problem on the ground rather than on expensive lawsuits.

To increase discussion on the nitrate-groundwater issue, Downey Brand attorneys encourage those interested in the topic to attend the “Legal and Regulatory Implications of Nitrates in Groundwater Workshop” April 24 at the University of California, Davis.

The California State Bar-sponsored event will bring together scientists, policy makers, and agribusiness leaders.

Meyer believes the nitrate-groundwater issue is part of the new trend in the “enviromentalization of agriculture.” Many accepted agricultural practices are now subject to environmental scrutiny, much like other industries. Agriculture has not been widely monitored until recently.

“The nitrate-groundwater problem will be one of the largest environmental issues that agriculture in California and other states will face in the next five to10 years,” Meyer said.

The nitrate-groundwater issue is new territory in the regulatory and legal arenas.

In the early 1990s, a serious groundwater-environmental issue occurred when the chemical methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a product to boost gasoline octane, leaked from underground gasoline tanks into groundwater. Government agencies believe MTBE can cause health risks.

Since MTBE contamination can occur from specific sources (point-source pollution), the problem was easier to clean up. Lawsuits ensued, followed by large payouts for groundwater cleanup.

The nitrate-groundwater issues mostly involve non-point releases. It is something which persists in the soil column over a large area, and then moves slowly to groundwater and dispersed through water tables.

Meyer says nitrates and groundwater could become a much larger issue than MTBE. Unless the current approach to the nitrate issue changes, he believes litigation costs could far exceed the MTBE litigation which totals hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. workshop will be held at UC Davis in the AGR Room of the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center, 530 Alumni Lane, Davis, Calif., 95616.

The cost is $40. Space is limited to the first 90 registrants.

Click the link for the workshop agenda.

For more information, contact Ruby Trammel at (916) 444-1000 or rtrammel@downeybrand.com.

cblake@farmpress.com

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