CA Water Cop Slammed for Lax Ag Reporting Rules

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s water regulator weakened restrictions on agriculture discharges in the Central Coast region and must implement tougher laws to protect groundwater supplies from contamination, a state court judge ruled Monday.
     The lawsuit filed by several environmental groups in 2013 accused the State Water Resources Control Board of giving in to the agriculture industry’s requests to loosen reporting restrictions regarding the amount of chemicals discharged by farmers in the Central Coast region.
     In a 44-page ruling, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley said the modified reporting laws fail to update or improve outdated 2004 discharge requirements.
     “The vast majority of growers, 97 percent or more, will be subject to requirements equal to, or less stringent than the 2004 waiver,” Frawley wrote. “It is unreasonable for the board to keep doing the same things it has been doing and expect different results.”
     The lawsuit focused on the water board’s decision to alter sections of its program titled “Waste Discharge Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands,” in 2013. The petitioners accused the water board of succumbing to political pressure from agricultural lobbyists and adopting weakened reporting restrictions, instead of protecting groundwater supplies.
     Petitioner Antonia Manzo said nitrate concentration levels in the well on her property in Monterey County far exceeded maximum levels and that the county issued a “do not drink” order to her and other residents. Manzo and the coalition of environmental groups accused the water board of violating the state’s Water Quality Control Act and for failing to perform a thorough environmental impact report before adopting changes to the agricultural reporting laws.
     The water board was forced to create an updated plan after a report issued in 2010 revealed water quality in the Central Coast region did not improve, despite agricultural reporting requirements issued in 2004. Frawley said the modified plan failed to meet criteria under the state’s Enforcement of Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program, known as the NPS policy, and didn’t include necessary measures to determine if farmers were limiting discharges into groundwater supplies.
     “The problem with the modified waiver is that there is little to support a conclusion that the waiver will lead to quantifiable improvements in water quality or even arrest the continued degradation of the region’s waters,” Frawley wrote.
     Frawley’s ruling requires the water board to reexamine the 2013 modifications and consider studies brought by petitioners during the two-year trial, including a UC Davis study highlighting the causes of nitrate contamination in the Salinas Valley.
     The petitioners believe Frawley’s decision could set a precedent and have impact on the entire state’s water-pollution policy.
     “Today’s ruling is a victory for the communities most vulnerable to water contamination and a step towards the realization of that right,” Colin Bailey, executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, said in a statement.
     The water board told Courthouse News it is still reviewing Frawley’s order and “determining next steps.”

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