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Growers Seek Ways to Meet Stricter Water Rules

In Ventura County, experts suggest teaming up to test irrigation runoff to save money.

April 26, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Questions about new state water quality guidelines that for the first time require agricultural landowners to test runoff from their irrigated properties drew nearly 100 farmers, ranchers and other growers to a meeting in Oxnard on Tuesday.

A long-standing agricultural exemption from water quality testing expired in 2003. But in November, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted rules that let farmers set up their own testing systems or team up to split the cost. Experts at the meeting explained how this could be done.

"We're not asking you to be particularly pleased about" the rules, said Rex Laird, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. "But we're trying to come up with a way to meet all the requirements at a lower price."

Other state water districts -- including the Central Valley and Central Coast -- have started similar programs.

In Ventura County, which has about 90,000 acres devoted to agriculture, runoff water will be collected and tested from at least two dozen monitoring locations beginning next year.

"Agriculture has been left out of this regulatory scheme for a number of years," said Sam Unger, a supervising scientist with the regional water quality board who reviewed the guidelines during the two-hour workshop.

Regardless of lot size, any irrigated land that produces fruits, vegetables or other commercially sold crops, trees or shrubs is subject to testing, Unger said. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Ventura County property owners will have to comply with the new rules, he said.

Water will be tested for the presence of 11 pesticides, nutrients and other conditions, such as pH levels, toxicity, ammonia, chloride, e-coli, nitrates, phosphates and sulfates.

The runoff testing will be conducted quarterly -- twice during the rainy season and twice during drier weather -- and reported once a year, beginning in early 2008. Based on the initial data, benchmarks will be set for various pesticides and nutrients. And where the ingredients exceed certain limits, landowners will be required to devise plans to reduce those levels.

The farm bureau has created the Ventura County Agricultural Irrigated Lands Group to file papers as a cooperative by the water board's Aug. 3 deadline, Laird said. By working together, individual property owners can avoid establishing independent monitoring systems that cost from $5,100 to nearly $8,300 per location, he said.

The group, which hopes to represent at least a third of the agricultural property in the county, will initially charge farmers $8 an acre to join, or about $400 for a 50-acre farm annually. The group has hired consultants to monitor and analyze water runoff going into the county's three major watersheds: Calleguas Creek, the Santa Clara River and the Ventura River.

Steve Bachman, groundwater resources manager for the United Water Conservation District in Santa Paula, said his agency obtained a $1.5-million state grant to study the quality of groundwater. Test results will be used to set benchmark levels for underground water locally beginning in 2008.

The 1 1/2 -year study has found that only about 5% of irrigated water escapes from farmed land in Ventura County and that modern pesticides are not as big a concern as initially thought, Bachman said.

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