March 17, 2011
The Regional Water Quality Control Board heard about five hours of public comment today at a hearing in Watsonville, following years of deliberation, study and revisions to existing agricultural water pollution rules. The four voting board members--one vote short of a quorum--decided to continue the issue to a special meeting next month, leaving the issue undecided after environmental groups and agricultural groups have mobilized forces to speak out strongly supporting dramatically different versions of the rules.
The Farm Bureau contends there is not enough science to support the water board's more stringent draft, and that tighter controls on nitrates, toxics and sediment would be economically devastating. Groups representing the environment, including Monterey Coastkeeper, say it's long overdue that agriculture be regulated, as many other industries are.
The agricultural waiver allows farms to monitor water quality in aggregate, rather than as individual entities. Unlike point-source polluters like factories, farms are considered nonpoint-source polluters, in that monitoring (and hence controlling) sources of water pollutants is a challenge. The draft ag waiver would largely exempt the lowest-risk polluters from tighter monitoring requirements, and would mandate that the heaviest polluters cut down on nitrates and certain pesticides.
Without a new waiver approved, the existing waiver--which originally expired in 2009 and has been renewed twice during the ongoing negotiations on the revision, which is still up in the air--has its very existence in contention, after it expires March 31. Because the board now lacks five voters, with three vacancies and two agricultural members recused from the issue due to a conflict of interest, they cannote vote to renew the waiver again.
The board may ask the lead staffer, Executive Director Roger Briggs, to administratively approve an extension of the waiver. But Nathan Alley, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, says such an extension is illegal. "They’re just flat out not allowed to do it," he says.
Without a waiver in effect, farmers could be required to report individually as point source polluters do.