Groundwater Policy Confusion at State Level

WGA’s Puglia on Sacramento’s Muddled Potable Groundwater Policy

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Groundwater Quality

Many residents in California’s agricultural regions rely on groundwater from private wells rather than from municipal supplies for clean drinkable water. Test results on many of these wells have revealed excess nitrates and other dangerous elements. Indisputably, all state residents deserve clean potable water.

Who is Responsible?

Cris Carrigan, director of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Office of Enforcement, issued confidential letters to growers in two regions, Salinas Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin, demanding these farmers supply potable water to the citizens in need.

“The letter represents a legal proceeding by the Office of Enforcement,” said Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association (WGA). “Why they desire to keep it confidential is something they would have to answer, but I think sending that many letters to a community of farmers is a pretty good guarantee that it won’t remain confidential.”

Dave Puglia, executive vice president, Western Growers Association, groundwater
Dave Puglia, executive vice president, Western Growers Association

 

The first letters went to growers in Salinas one year ago. “Although there has been some advancement of the discussions between some of the growers in the Salinas Valley and the Office of Enforcement,” Puglia said, “I don’t think it’s been put to bed yet.”

Which Groundwater Supply?

“It’s critical to distinguish between entire communities in need of [municipal] drinking water assistance and domestic well users whose wells have nitrate issues. Those are two different things.”

“It’s important to keep that distinction. The state has spent money and is advancing programs to provide clean drinking water to small community water systems that don’t have that capability, and that’s appropriate,” Puglia clarified. “That is not what we’re talking about here.”

“We’re talking about a smaller number of individuals whose domestic wells are contaminated with nitrates. These are people not served by a municipal system.”

“Again, these are people who depend upon wells located on property that has been previously used for agriculture, and the groundwater has nitrate levels that exceed state limits. We are talking about one to maybe five household connections serviced by one well, so it is a very small service of water.”

“This is a much smaller universe than we’re accustomed to talking about when we talk about nitrate levels in drinking water. It often conjures up the image of municipal water systems that [cannot be treated.] That is a different problem entirely, and the state has made some advances in tackling that problem and needs to do more. This is something of a smaller nature, but the cost-impacts could be very significant.”

Replacement Water

“There are different ways of providing replacement drinking water for some period of time until those folks can be connected to municipal water service. That really should be the objective here; if a domestic well is that far gone, we should get these folks connected to a municipal water service,” Puglia said.

The bigger question is what should the state’s replacement water policy be for individuals whose wells are contaminated with nitrates? Puglia said, “The state of California and the federal government encouraged farmers to apply nitrogen for decades to produce something we all need—nutritious food preferably from American soil.

“Now, with the benefit of scientific advancement, we discover that much of that nitrogen was able to leach below the root zone and enter the groundwater supply.”

Irrigated Field in Salinas, groundwater
Irrigated Field in Salinas

Groundwater Policy Debate

“This was not an intentional act of malice to pollute groundwater. These were farmers doing [best practices] to provide food as they were coached and educated by our universities and by our state and federal governments.” Puglia said the state looks at this problem as if it were a case of industrial pollution and growers should be punished.

“That is fundamentally not what this is. I think it’s really important for the state of California, for Governor Jerry Brown, and for his administration, to stand back, take a hard look at this problem and differentiate it from industrial pollution, because it is not the same. They need to go back to the SWRCB’s recommendations for best solutions,” Puglia declared.

“Three or four years ago, the Water Board recommended to the legislature the most preferable policy solution for the public good was to have everyone chip in for clean water. This is just like how all of us pay a small charge on our phone bill for the California Lifeline Service for folks who can’t afford phone service,” Puglia said.

“If we have a connection to a water system, we would all pay a small charge on our water bill to generate enormous amounts of revenue that the state could use to fix not only nitrate contamination but all of the other contaminants in the state’s drinking water supplies. Many of those contaminants are far more hazardous than nitrate, such as Chromium-6 (a carcinogen), arsenic and other toxins that are industrial pollutants, that pose a much greater health risk.”

Puglia explained that in this case, the state bypassed its own preferred ‘public goods charge‘ policy option with regard to water. The state bypassed its second preferred policy option, which is a small tax on food. The state bypassed its third preferred policy option, a fertilizer tax. “State officials from Governor Brown’s office went straight to the policy option the State Water Board said it did not prefer, which is to target farmers.”

Complex Contamination Needs a Holistic Solution

Now the big question is who ought to bear the burden of paying for that solution, both on a temporary basis and then on a permanent basis? Puglia said, “The state itself and the State Water Board itself already projected three policy options that would be preferable.”

“These options would have spread the cost very broadly among Californians through three different mechanisms, seemingly in recognition of the fact that farmers were doing the right thing for decades in growing food using fertilizer. Fertilizer that contains nitrogen has been essential to growing food since the dawn of humankind.”

Puglia said that nitrate contamination of drinking water is a legitimate problem in California. However, it pales in comparison to the presence of industrial pollutants in drinking water supplies that are highly carcinogenic and highly toxic. Such water sources throughout southern California and parts of the Bay Area can no longer be used.

Rather than looking at this holistically, Puglia said, Governor Brown’s administration has focused exclusively on one contaminant, nitrate, that affects a relatively small number of Californians and is targeting one small group of Californians to pay for replacement water.  A holistic perspective would determine that California has a severe problem with its drinking water due to contamination by different toxic substances that vary in different regions of the state and that affect many Californians diversely.

“The obvious way to ensure people have safe, clean drinking water,” Puglia said, “is a broad solution, like a fee on water connections that we all pay. And that has been, in fact, the SWRCB’s preferred solution.”

“And, yet, we have made no effort as a state to move that policy forward. Instead, we are defaulting to running over a small group of people who are relatively defenseless, politically.”

“More importantly some people in the Governor’s Office, as well as leaders and secretaries in the Governor’s administration, including Matt Rodriquez, secretary, CalEPA, expressed some agreement with our position and sympathy with our predicament. Yet the letters continued to go out,” Puglia said.

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