Water coalition seeks members

This article appeared in the Merced Sun-Star on April 15, 2013

Goal is to curb pollution, costs

Farmers have until May 13 to sign up for a program that could save them money on efforts to prevent groundwater pollution.

The East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition is seeking to add members as it prepares to carry out new groundwater rules from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The coalition covers irrigated land in the parts of Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties east of the San Joaquin River. Tiny parts of Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa counties are part of it, too.

This and similar groups around the valley have monitored surface water for pesticides and other farm pollutants for a decade. The regional board agreed to keep this approach as the effort expands underground this year.

Annual coalition dues are $50 per farm plus $4 per acre. The money goes to water monitoring and education of farmers about practices that reduce pollution.

Direct regulation by the regional board would cost much more. For example, a farmer with 10 to 100 acres would pay a $750 fee, plus $5 per acre, each year.

"We'd be looking at a formal order telling them they need to get regulatory coverage," said Joe Karkoski, chief of the board's irrigated lands regulatory program. "Then if they fail to do that, we could issues fines."

The coalition membership covers about 572,000 of the 1.1 million irrigated acres within the boundaries. This does not include dairy farms, which are regulated under another program.

A key part of the groundwater effort involves nitrates from nitrogen-based fertilizer. Health officials have linked them to thyroid cancer, birth defects and other problems in people using tainted drinking-water wells.

Valley farmers will have to document the amount of nitrogen applied to each crop and also factor in the nitrogen level of well water used for irrigation.

The coalition will track "nitrogen budgets" for farmers, showing how much went in soil and how much was taken up by the crops.

"This is cutting-edge stuff, and how it works out is going to be unmatched anywhere in the country or the world,"said Parry Klassen, the coalition's executive director.

East San Joaquin is the first coalition to take up groundwater. Others soon could follow, including those serving San Joaquin County and the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report.

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