“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.

Draft management plan

The regional board just released a draft management plan that will go further to achieve goals of reducing (by 2025) 80 percent of agricultural tailwater or treating it; 80 percent of nitrates in groundwater; 80 percent surface water meeting toxicity or pesticide specific water quality objectives; 80 percent of surface water meeting sediment water quality objectives, and ensure that 80 percent of aquatic habitat is healthy.

This plan is subject to stakeholder review over the next few months with a water quality control board meeting scheduled for March to take comments on the plan.

It includes such things as:

  • Mandating farmers implement irrigation and nutrient management measures to reduce pollution with photo documentation of actions taken by producers.
  • Using cover crops to reduce sediments moving off the land.
  • Lining or cementing pond floors to prevent runoff water leaching into the groundwater.

McCann left little doubt that farming in coastal areas will change forever — if the water board has its way. This would include not only water management, but pesticide applications as well. It was interesting that McCann only gave lip service to other alternatives, like publicly funded wastewater treatment like is used in cities to preserve food production.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has waded into the water protection issue with a new set of drift mitigation regulations to put on its own regulatory stamp to protect surface water, according to Patricia Matteson, IPM specialist with DPR.

These include:

  • Most ground applications shall not be made within 25 feet of any sensitive aquatic site.
  • Air blast, high-pressure (greater than 60 psi) wand or high-pressure hand gun applications shall not be made within 100 feet of any sensitive aquatic site.
  • Aerial applications shall not be made within 150 feet of any sensitive aquatic site.
  • Aerial applications to deciduous plants during the dormant season shall only be allowed if soil conditions do not allow field entry, or approaching bloom conditions necessitate aerial application, and if the operator of the property obtains a written recommendation from a licensed pest control adviser.

The following uses and sites are exempt from the new requirements.

  • Apiaries
  • Aquaculture
  • Livestock production (meat or milk)
  • Post-harvest commodity treatment on the farm
  • Poultry production (meat or eggs)
  • Injections into soil
  • Applications immediately incorporated into soil. If incorporation is by irrigation, the irrigation shall be applied at rates than do not cause runoff.
  • Applications to animal burrows
  • Injections into or painted or wicked onto trees, shrubs, or other plants
  • Intentional applications to water
  • Applications as enclosed baits

An impetus for these new regulations is the mandated National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. This permit process is the result of a successful lawsuit over the application of an herbicide in an irrigation canal that killed fish in the Pacific Northwest several years ago. A federal appeals court upheld the verdict that a pesticide application permit was needed to protect water. All states are now being required to develop a NPDES permit process. California has been developing one, since the initial court ruling was handed down.

Regulatory pain for farmers

About 70 insecticides and herbicides are subject to these new state regulations.

The regulatory pain California farmers feel when using fumigants is spreading nationwide under a new set of rules for using soil fumigants.

According to Katy Wilcoxen with EPA in San Francisco more stringent fumigant use rules will be phased in two parts. Many of the rules EPA is imposing are now part of the California Department of Pesticide Regulations fumigant regulations. Others are new.

The major change is that fumigants will now become restricted use materials nationwide, thus requiring permits to apply. They are already restricted use products in California.

The fumigants covered include: chloropicrin, dazomet, metam sodium/potassium, and methyl bromide and the soil fumigants 1,3-dichloropropene (Telone) and iodomethane (methyl iodide). Iodomethane was registered in October 2007. The agency will re-examine the mitigation required for iodomethane to ensure consistency with other currently registered fumigants. Idomethane was recently registered in California with far more rigorous use restrictions than required on the federal label.

Along with the new restricted use designation as part of the Phase 1 of the new regulations that went into effect in December, respirators will be required of all applicators, as they are now in California.

What were suggested recommended practices will not be mandatory as part of the federal label. There are rate reductions on some of the products and federal re-entry restrictions have been extended from 48 hours to five days.

Manual applications of fumigants will be largely eliminated. Fumigants can now be only mechanically applied nationwide.

Phase 2 of the new regulations effective in 2012 includes wider buffer zones, yet to be established. Wilcoxen said EPA will eventually require that all fumigant applicators be licensed nationwide as they are in California.

The new EPA rules for fumigants are part of the federally mandated agchem re-registration process for all products that has been going on for several years. Fumigants were among the last to face re-registration.

Wilcoxen said EPA will start over with fumigant re-registrations in 2013.

hcline@farmpress.com