New Water Quality Rules for Ag Land?

Regional Control Board Readies for Long-Awaited Vote on Controversial Policy Tweak

Environmentalists have been waiting for this day for nearly four years, but farmers and ranchers on the Central Coast are anything but excited. At a meeting next week in San Luis Obispo, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is scheduled to give a thumbs-up — or -down — to a long-simmering plan to overhaul the agency’s Agricultural Waiver. The regulatory tool allows irrigated ag land to be exempt from certain mandates of the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act in exchange for promises of, among other things, on-site monitoring of discharge and reporting.

The current waiver, which technically expired back in July 2009 but was given extra life on several occasions as the agency painstakingly worked to recraft it, has often been attacked by enviros and water quality watchdog groups for being woefully ineffective at providing the type of public protections the Control Board is charged with delivering. Pointing to a 2010 study that identified 700-plus “impaired” bodies of water in the Central Coast region believed to be impacted by ag land runoff (including more than 80 in the lower Santa Maria watershed), Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and others have been lobbying and even filing lawsuits in hopes of getting the Control Board to adopt a new waiver with more stringent terms.

Aggies have been loath to see the waiver get an update. They fear the proposals, such as individually reported farm monitoring (as opposed to more anonymous, co-op based methods), publicly reported well-water tests, expanded buffer zones for riparian areas, and, in some cases, assigning the cost of these tests to the farmers themselves, will put farms at both fiscal risk and possible backlash from an uninformed public. The Control Board convenes next Wednesday and Thursday, March 14 and 15, in San Luis Obispo at the Embassy Suites Hotel.

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