Farmers from Santa Barbara and six other counties are protesting new rules proposed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to clamp down on water pollution stemming from the application of fertilizers and pesticides on irrigated fields. “We’re not saying, ‘Leave us alone, there’s no problem,’” said Kevin Merrill with the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. “We’re saying we’ve been dealing with the problem for the past 25 years.”

Such efforts, however, have not been sufficient to meet the concerns of the Central Coast regional board. Polluted water running off farm fields has contaminated surface streams and groundwater supplies, according to a staff report prepared by the regional board. “Thousands of people on the Central Coast are drinking water from wells that are contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrate, or are drinking treated or replacement water to avoid drinking contaminated water,” stated the report. In the Salinas Valley, more than 20 percent of public supply wells don’t meet safe drinking standards. The cleanup costs associated with such pollution, the report estimated, was in the neighborhood “of hundreds of millions of dollars.” Not only can such pollution kill all living things in streams and creeks, the report stated, but it can cause Blue Baby syndrome, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease in humans.

In response, the regional board has proposed agricultural operations be required to monitor water quality and to ensure that no contaminated water is allowed to run off. But according to Merrill and the farm bureau, such a regulatory scheme would prove financially lethal to many farming operations already operating at the margins. He doubted the scientific basis of the regional board’s recommendations. And he also questioned the stricter water-quality standards the regional board has proposed and the amount of time farmers would be given to comply. “They want water from lettuce fields to meet safe drinking standards? Not going to happen,” he said. Merrill acknowledged that many contaminants are in the water, but said much of that stemmed from dairies that are now long gone or “legacy pesticides” that have not been used in years. Farmers have an economic interest in using as few pesticides and fertilizers as possible, he argued. “They have some notion of farmers as people with pitchforks spewing pesticides all over the place,” he said. “It’s not that way.”

Merrill and hundreds of other ag operators from seven counties traveled to San Luis Obispo to express their concerns to the regional water board this week. Likewise, many environmentalists and clean water advocates made the trek in support of stringent regulations. Anything without strict timelines and monitoring requirements, they countered, would be meaningless and empty. The regional board listened to public testimony on the proposed regulations, as it will again this summer. Final action is slated to take place sometime this winter.


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