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California farmers, ecologists square off over drinking water pollution

April 8, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Central valley farm Anne Cusack LAT fotog weedpatch ca

Should farmers in the Central Valley, California's richest agricultural region, be required to monitor and clean up groundwater pollution from their operations? The issue will be taken up by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board at a three-day meeting in Rancho Cordova beginning June 8.

Under the proposed regulations, farmland would be classified based on the contamination risk. Farms considered most likely to pollute groundwater would have to take certain steps to reduce fertilizer and other agricultural runoff. If passed, the new rules would affect 35,000 growers who work about 7 million acres of irrigated land.

Environmentalists faced off against farm groups in an all-day public hearing Thursday in Rancho Cordova. Farmers said that the regulations would be expensive and burdensome.  Environmental and community groups said that current rules don't protect drinking water from pesticides, fertilizers and other agricultural runoff.

"Runoff from irrigated agriculture is the largest source of pollution to Central Valley waterways and the Delta," said the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and more than 70 other state and local groups in a joint statement. "This pollution is one of the principal causes of the collapse of Central Valley fisheries.

"Inexplicably, irrigated agriculture remains exempt from requirements to monitor discharges and identify measure to reduce pollution," the groups said, adding that such rules have "long been applicable to every other segment of society, from municipalities to industry to mom and pop businesses."

However, more than a dozen growers of rice, hay, grain and other crops in the Sacramento Valley
watershed, submitted a letter saying they were "adamantly opposed" to a requirement for electronic reports on their discharges. "Being a small diversified farmer has become increasingly difficult with regulatory burdens exploding over these last few years," the letter said.

It added that complying would be "an impossibility" for roughly half of its 600 ranchers and farmers. Thirty percent of the farmers protesting do not have Internet access and do not own a computer, the letter said, adding that another 20% use dial-up access or must drive to a free Wi-Fi establishment.

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-- Margot Roosevelt

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Farm workers in Weedpatch, Ca., in the Central Valley, where agricultural runoff is polluting groundwater and poisoning fisheries. Credit: Anne Cusack \ Los Angeles Times

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