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March 23, 2017

The Nitrate Troubles

You and those who farmed before you are not industrial polluters.

It seems odd to have to say that, but thanks to the state of California, which evidently believes otherwise, we must repeat this truth, and we must retrace some very important history to put the problem of nutrients in groundwater into the proper framework.

Farmers in the Salinas Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin are being threatened by the State Water Resources Control Board with punitive enforcement action unless they agree to pay for replacement drinking water for people served by small well systems with nitrate levels exceeding the state’s standard.

The need to provide safe drinking water to these affected people is widely supported. Targeting farmers to pay for this need, however, is very much in dispute.

The state’s regulators wield California’s strict water quality statute, which conveys to them the power to issue cleanup and abatement orders against any landowner applying a substance to the ground believed to be “causing a condition of pollution” to the water below.

The fact that the statute provides this power does not justify the state’s use of it in this case.

We have been pressing the Brown Administration to rethink this approach and consider a more equitable and effective strategy. There is no disagreement that throughout California, in both rural and urban regions, many groundwater basins that provide domestic water, or could be utilized for domestic water, contain excessive levels of any number of contaminants. Nitrate gets all the attention, but it is quite possibly the least harmful of the contaminants of concern. Hexavalent chromium, arsenic and lead are all quite clearly more dangerous than nitrate, and the groundwater basins containing these contaminants are found in much more heavily-populated parts of the state.

More to the point, we argue that the application of nitrogen fertilizer to grow food is entirely different than the careless dumping of industrial chemicals from a factory.

Indeed, the application of nitrogen fertilizer was one of the first advances in agriculture thousands of years ago, and the use of fertilizer on farms through the history of humankind has saved untold millions from starvation. It is painfully revealing that we even have to argue this point.

As we continue to press the Brown Administration to support a broad-based mechanism that addresses all groundwater contaminants in all parts of the state, we are also gearing up to fight for relief in the federal Farm Bill.

Our case is strong and simple:  Our own federal government and the land grant universities encouraged and guided farmers on application of nitrogen fertilizer for decades to increase food production and efficiency. Farmers relied on that advice, and used that guidance, which represented the best management practices of the time. In other words, farmers did not carelessly over-apply fertilizer, which, like other inputs, hits the bottom line.

Fast forward to today: Possessed of greater scientific knowledge, farmers now have information and guidance to help them apply fertilizer more precisely to both maximize yield and reduce movement of nitrates below the root zone. Best management practices have advanced in parallel with scientific research, much of which came from the land grant universities, just as before.

Yet as noted above, in California, and in other regions of the country as well, regulators are attempting to penalize the farmers of today for the perfectly legal and encouraged practices of decades past. That is fundamentally unfair and we’ll fight it.

We do not, however, wish to ignore the legitimate needs of communities lacking safe drinking water due to nitrate contamination. They should be helped right away, and the right way to fund upgraded water systems, temporary replacement water and other forms of assistance is through the federal Farm Bill. This recognizes that farmers are not guilty of pollution and that these legitimate drinking water needs ought to be the focus of our federal farm policy.

Our team has already begun working with California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross to organize her counterparts in a coalition with industry to secure funding. Separately, I have raised this issue with the other co-chairs of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, the large industry coalition that advocates on the Farm Bill.

From time to time, I hear people in the fresh produce industry say that the Farm Bill isn’t important to them. There are dozens of reasons why that is not accurate, and now we can add another big one to the list.