It has never been easy work to make a living off the land and, at least in the opinion of many Santa Barbara County farmers, things may soon become even more difficult — that is, if the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board staff gets its way. Looking to improve and make more strict its nearly decade-old standard for the acceptable quality of water discharged from irrigated agricultural land, the state agency is considering a change of the rules that would require many farmers and ranchers, at their own expense, to test the water used on their properties and in their wells for nitrogen and pesticide levels, while also submitting annual reports about said results to the Control Board under penalty of law. “In short, it is an impossibility for us,” opined longtime Santa Maria-based grower and former County Farm Bureau head Victor Tognazzini last week about the average grower’s ability to meet the potential new requirements.
Looking to conclude more than two years’ worth of work on the subject aimed specifically at improving the overall health of the water both above and below ground along the Central Coast, the Control Board was slated for a potential vote on the new requirements at their meeting last month in Watsonville. But time constraints, coupled with an impressive outpouring of public testimony (more than 250 people turned up to speak on the topic), saw the debate and potential vote continued until early May so as to allow a proper vetting. However, to hear the board’s Executive Officer Roger Briggs tell it, an affirmative vote may be the only possible outcome for the board. According to Briggs, nitrates and pesticide runoff plague groundwater supplies, creeks and rivers, and even the ocean of the Central Coast to such a degree that the receiving waters of our region had the dubious distinction in a recent state survey of having the highest level of toxicity of anywhere in California. “We aren’t really doing our job if we don’t do something about these major water quality and public health issues,” Briggs explained this week, “… and we need to have accountability in order to get results.”
Specifically, the new waiver standards would organize the 3,000-odd farms in the Central Coast region into three distinct tiers: Tier 1 being the smallest “family-run” farms with the least potential for being big-scale polluters, and Tier 3 being the biggest, more corporate farms with the highest potential for pollution. The farms in each tier would have to follow — via the hiring of an independent third party — their own unique set of monitoring and reporting protocols. For the smaller farms, things wouldn’t go much beyond a monthly test of the various bodies of water the farm/ranch runs off into, and two groundwater tests (i.e., existing wells) a year with a once-annual online report to the Control Board. The other end of the spectrum would have to carry out the same receiving-waters tests while also doing groundwater tests each quarter for the first year, riparian and wetland photo monitoring once every three years if they border an “impaired” body of water, and, for operations in excess of 5,000 acres, quarterly tests of surface discharge. Additionally, failure to implement these protocols or stringing together some bad results from the required testing would open up the operators to potential fines.
For farmers, it isn’t just the obvious fiscal impacts of the new proposed rules that have them crying foul. As Tognazzini explained last week during an unrelated agricultural gathering at the Santa Barbara public library, it is the fact that much of the nitrate pollution in the groundwater that could potentially be detected
— and thus open up a costly can of worms for property owners — is the result of pollution from a time before people were aware of the dangers associated with excessive nitrogen levels in water sources. “The reason they are doing this is because of the sins of our fathers,” said Tognazzini. “The reality is, we have improved our systems so much in recent years.”
The Control Board is scheduled to revisit the debate at its next meeting, May 4, in San Luis Obispo.