San Joaquin Valley farmers lag as nitrogen program signup deadline looms

This article appeared in the Merced Sun-Star on May 1, 2013

By Joshua Emerson Smith

With a deadline less than two weeks away, officials say hundreds of regional farmers have not signed up for the state's mandatory "nitrogen budgeting" program aimed at improving groundwater quality.

"There's people saying, 'I'm tired of this, and I don't want the water board involved with my operation, and I'm going to chance it,' " said Amanda Carvajal, executive director with the Merced County Farm Bureau.

However, that's not a position endorsed by local farm bureaus. "They will ultimately have to get in," Carvajal said. "It's a no-choice operation. At some point, we have to work together on this."

Under the program, farmers must document the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer applied to a particular crop and then submit that information for review by regulators.

If overapplied, nitrogen-based fertilizer can cause nitrate contamination in groundwater, which has been linked to potentially fatal blue-baby syndrome and cancer.

"The question remains, 'Is the water board going to enforce this?' " Carvajal said. "Do they have the manpower, especially with the large number of people not signing up?"

Growers in the region who have not signed up by the May 13 deadline could face penalties, according to Joe Karkoski, chief of the irrigation lands regulatory program for the regional water board.

"We have the option of issuing a fine for failure to get proper regulatory coverage," he said "That's why we're trying to get people to sign up now so they can avoid the possibility of a fine."

Last week, bureaus in Merced, Madera and Modesto held workshops to inform farmers of their options and encourage participation.

Strong forum turnout

Turnout was "excellent," said Parry Klassen, executive director for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. "They certainly showed up in droves. We were really surprised that there were as many people as there were."

Almost 400 people showed up for the meetings, according to the water- quality coalition. Merced saw the biggest turnout with roughly 150 growers attending to learn about the program.

However, there were many more that didn't make it to the event, Klassen said. "We had far more applications go out the door than there were people at the meeting. People were grabbing applications for their friends."

The water-quality coalition has been designated by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to collect the nitrogen budgets and submit data to regulators. The deadline to sign up with the coalition is May 13.

The program eventually will apply to all of the state, but officials have chosen to roll out the regulations in the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed, which comprises Merced, Stanislaus, Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.

About 2,900 farmers have signed up with the water-quality coalition, representing 595,000 acres. However, as much as 215,000 acres of irrigated farmland hasn't been accounted for under the program, according to the water-quality coalition.

If farmers decline to join the coalition, they will be charged an annual administrative fee of $750 for 10-to-100-acre farms, plus $5 an acre, according to the regional water board.

Membership dues for the water-quality coalition are $50 a member and $4 an acre. In exchange, the water-quality coalition will gather the nitrogen budgets and submit aggregated data to the regional water board.

Farmers not signed up with the water-quality coalition will have to submit their own technical reports, which officials say will be time consuming and costly.

"I feel like they're playing Russian roulette," Carvajal said of those not signed up. "It's a dangerous game. I would never wish for someone to do the monitoring on their own."

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