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Nitrate contamination rules coming

If you want to know what impact looming groundwater regulations could have, a good place to start is local farmer Bill Tos.

Tos sat through Monday night’s discussion of the issue at the Kings County Water Commission meeting. And he walked out worried about the possibility of exploding costs to fix what regulators say is a nitrate groundwater contamination problem directly tied to the Central Valley’s huge agricultural industry and the fertilizers it spreads on cropland.

“We certainly want to be good stewards,” Tos said. “The question is, how much does it cost?”

Tos and others are watching nervously as the Central Valley Water Board moves closer to requiring monitoring and best practices that the board estimates will cost growers $21 an acre on average.

The new rules are expected to be finalized next year. Similar rules already apply to dairies, but the new rule would extend them to all types of crop-growing operations.

A University of California, Davis study released in March identified agricultural fertilizers as the main contributor to contaminated groundwater. Nitrates, which can cause birth defects and other problems, have made the well water unsafe in several economically disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers already implementing best practices to reduce nitrate contamination might only have to pay an additional $5 per acre, said Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer at the water board’s Fresno office.

“Our agency has an obligation to protect groundwater quality,” Rodgers said, adding that he wants to work with growers to make sure the implementation process is reasonable.

“For the average farmer ... this is going to add some costs,” Rodgers said.

David Orth, Kings River Conservation District general manager, said the cost estimates are unknown.

“Implementation will be the difficult thing,” he said. “What if it’s demonstrated through the monitoring process that current [best] practices don’t protect water quality? We really don’t know where this is going to go.”

Orth said he would put together a technical team to work with the water board to figure out exactly what is necessary.

It’s an open question exactly how many farms would need to be monitored to get representative data that could be applied on a wider scale. The fewer farms to go through the extensive monitoring process, the wider the cost could be spread out.

Rodgers made it clear that regulation of groundwater nitrate contamination is going forward.

Farmers will have several months to comment on the draft plan, he said.

Tos is hoping that water board officials will allow enough flexibility in the rules to keep farms operating in the black.

“All we can ask for is that it’s done in a cost-effective way ... and that we can survive,” Tos said.

(read online version)

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