More than 50 area farmers turned out Friday morning to learn about the process of developing the next Agricultural Order and how they can have an impact on what requirements are eventually recommended for adoption.

Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board staff conducted their fourth stakeholder workshop of the week at the Santa Maria Public Library to explain what Ag Order 4.0 is, provide a timeline for developing the next one and outline the questions the staff hopes growers will answer during the public comment period.

Formally known as a Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands, the Agricultural Order sets limits for nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediment allowed to flow from irrigated crop lands into surface and groundwater.

It also establishes procedures and time limits for monitoring runoff and water quality and reporting the results to the Water Board.

Growers are currently regulated by the third Ag Order adopted by the board in March 2017. Three months later, the staff began working on Ag Order 4.0, scheduled for adoption in March 2020.

Elements of the Ag Order are findings, conditions and provisions; methods for prioritization; numeric limits to reach water quality objectives; the implementation schedule; requirements for implementing treatment and control measures; monitoring and reporting requirements; and incentives.

Farmers’ concerns

Some of the farmers at Friday’s meeting expressed concern over specific aspects of the next Ag Order, including how limiting the amount of nitrogen they could apply would have an impact on their productivity and whether it will improve groundwater quality.

“If we cut out all farming today, we know all the nitrogen in the soil that’s been building up for 10 years hasn’t even made it to groundwater,” said Chris Rose, the Water Board’s Irrigated Lands Section manager. “So it’s going to take some time.”

They also were concerned about the expense of implementing the provisions.

“Will the cost of this be included in the environmental impact report?” one grower asked.

Rose said the staff is required to do a cost analysis.

“What it comes down to is, ‘Can it be done?’” Rose said, adding the staff can’t pick a cost and develop an Ag Order to fit it but must develop an Ag Order that meets objectives, then a way found to make it affordable.

Some were skeptical about how buffer zones are measured from the top of a waterway bank, pointing out how a channel can change from heavy rains.

“I have lands where I’m growing 70 feet from the bank,” one grower said. “If we have a wet winter, I could be 1 foot from the bank.

“If the channel changes, do I have to renegotiate a lease and tell my tenant he can’t grow on 40 acres because the channel changed?” she asked. “This borders on a ‘taking.’”

Another saw a problem in the requirement that buffer zones be vegetated.

“This all has to work with local regulations, and often the local jurisdiction establishes a buffer from the edge of the vegetation,” he said. “So your regulations have to work with local regulations.”

Elaine Sahl, the Irrigated Lands Program manager for the Water Board, responded, “There are some complex issues.”

Some questioned the many numerical limits that have not been specified in five tables listing current requirements and options for the next order, but the Water Board staff said they are looking to the growers for help in establishing those numbers.

“We’re looking for comments on all five tables,” Sahl said. “We’re also looking for additional options, if you have any.”

Sahl said comments on suggested options and alternative options provided by farmers could end up in the next set of tables as Ag Order 4.0 provisions are refined.

“We really are looking forward to your comments on these concepts,” she said.

But Rose noted specific objectives must be met in developing the Ag Order.

Those include minimizing nitrate discharges to groundwater, nutrient discharges to surface water, pesticide toxicity in surface water and sediment discharges to surface water, and protecting and restoring riparian and wetland habitat.

“If you provide an alternative, just remember we have some objectives we have to meet,” Rose said.

Timeline

Growers have until 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, to comment on the options listed in the five tables and answer some specific questions about them, although Rose said stakeholders can comment on anything related to Ag Order 4.0.

Staff will compile comments, continue with focus groups and stakeholder meetings and make recommendations to the Water Board at the March meeting.

“That’s a really important meeting for growers to attend,” Rose said, noting the board will give the staff direction on developing a draft Ag Order. “Unfortunately it’s in Watsonville, but we’re trying to get it webcast.”

The staff then expects to have a draft order and draft environmental impact report prepared by about Aug. 2, when another 60-day comment period will start.

A final draft order will be prepared between October and February 2020, with the Water Board to consider adoption at the March 2020 meeting.

Getting with the program

The Ag Order only applies to irrigated agricultural land, not to dryland farming operations, nor does it apply to cannabis cultivation, which is handled under a separate permit process, Rose said.

Rose said all commercial growers who irrigate crops are required to enroll in the Ag Order, noting the Water Board investigates those who are not enrolled.

“If you’re growing and not enrolled, you’ll get a nasty letter from us,” he said, urging those who are not enrolled in Ag Order 3.0 to do so now. “Nothing’s going to happen to you — the sky’s not going to fall if you enroll late.”

But he also said growers with land that is enrolled but is not being cultivated to either terminate the enrollment for that property or change the enrollment to zero acres “because fees are determined by the amount of acreage” being cultivated.”

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News Editor

Mike Hodgson is news editor at the Santa Ynez Valley News, where he writes about local government, special events and the people who live in the Valley. He has been a photographer, writer, news editor and managing editor at weekly newspapers since 1972

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