As the executive officer for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Patrick Pulupa leads an agency that regulates 40% of the land in the state.

The board supplies drinking water to more than 23 million people and irrigation water to more than three million acres of farmland. It regulates water quality through the Irrigated Lands program and waste discharge through both the Confined Animal Facility program and more recently the Cannabis Cultivation program.

Pulupa began as lead attorney for the board in 2006, moving to his current role in 2018. He now oversees more than 260 staff across 20 regulatory programs. He has also been deeply involved in the decade-long negotiations over the CV-SALTS plan for reducing salts and nitrates in drinking water.

Pulupa spoke with Agri-Pulse this week about balancing reason with science in regulating agriculture, about seeing farmers as environmentalists and about the many regulatory challenges farmers face today.

1. Can you describe your role at the board?

It's an interesting assignment in the Central Valley, in that it's the biggest of the regional boards.

My boss (when I arrived) basically said, “This is a tough assignment. You can choose to work here for a little while, and we can get you assigned to some other region.”

But the issues kept coming, and they were innovative and intriguing enough that I just kept going in the Central Valley.

It's an interesting agency in that it is an environmental agency, but it is not ideologically driven. It is really just working with the communities to find solutions that can be protective of our resources and work towards common goals. We're lucky in this region in that most people are pulling on the same team.

2. What is your approach to coordinating and balancing the many stakeholders and interest groups here?

The two touchstones I usually rely upon are first to try and be reasonable and second to go where the science leads you.

If the science says there's a pollution problem and reasonableness says that problem can only be solved in a 10-year timeframe, you pretty much have your course of action charted out for you.

Just listening to the different opinions, you really can work through a lot of solutions using those two guideposts as the touchstones.

3. Can you explain the challenge of balancing permitting fees with staffing costs?

The fees are, of course, set by the State Board. But we have a role to play, in that we have to maximize the efficiencies on our end to essentially keep our staff costs low. Regardless of the program, in most cases upwards of 80 to 90% of our resources come from the permittees themselves. So, we have a responsibility to make sure that we use those funds wisely.

In the Irrigated Lands context, that means figuring out how we can have both permitting efficiencies – and the coalitions play a very central role in minimizing costs there – and also monitoring efficiencies. Not collecting data for data collection sake is a big part of that and making sure the data we make folks gather is data that’s useful to us in the decision making we go through. It's a push-and-pull.

We acknowledge there's an expense associated with that and there’s staff time associated with processing that. But we want to really narrowly focus our efforts on the most meaningful data to make good decisions.

Patrick Pulupa4. How has the engagement from ag changed over time?

My personal sense is the vast majority of the agricultural industry here in California – and they might not want to admit it – but they're environmentalists.

When you look at what they do for their land, for their soil, for their water, for their air, and compare it to the standards met in many other places of the country and in the world, we really are on the forefront of environmental protection.

When I came aboard in 2006, as the program was evolving, you still had a lot of folks saying they were not really causing that much of a problem here, they were stewards of the land and didn't really need to be regulated. Now we're working in partnership with a lot of the agricultural coalitions. They recognize there are problems caused by a lot of their operations, but they're working with us to solve them.

If we can extend our hands in a good-faith effort to meet them on their turf and understand the problems and economic realities they're wrestling with, we can be better informed as regulators as we chart a path forward to tackling the problems.

5. What’s the biggest issue going forward?

CV-SALTS is the biggest issue for the next decade or more. We are working hard to figure out the next solutions for drinking water issues in the Central Valley.

The agricultural community recognizes their practices have had an adverse impact on drinking water in many parts of the valley. But that's their workforce and their neighbors, and they want to work with them to find solutions to these drinking water problems.

The communities clamoring for drinking water solutions, likewise, view the ag community as the lifeblood of their communities. There's a lot of shared goals when we talk to both stakeholders on the environmental justice and the small community side and agricultural side.

6. With SGMA coming online, what do you expect to see at the board?

It's really the missing piece of the puzzle for a lot of the water quality issues we work with. One of our biggest concerns is those communities that are dependent on groundwater and seeing their supplies dry up or be contaminated.

If you can’t assess what is happening within the aquifer, you'll never really get your arms around how to deal with the water quality issues. In many cases, we're talking about loads impacting water quality based on how much water is there.

I absolutely appreciate the challenges the agricultural community faces with respect to SGMA. It is a heck of a regulatory program.

There's going to be some tough decisions on the horizon for how groundwater can be managed. It's going to change the economics for a lot of folks who are planting crops out there. The folks hardest hit aren’t the folks who are planting the almonds, or pistachios or other high-value crops. One of the challenges is to figure out what the solution is for those growers.

7. Any other messages for farmers?

As a board, we very much try to be cognizant of all the different regulatory programs (farmers are) working under.

It's easy to get ensconced in your regulatory program and ignore the fact that there are also water quality issues, air quality issues and land use issues – and not to mention marketing orders – that the ag community has to comply with.

The level of effort the agricultural community has put into making substantial investments, into learning about these new requirements and into rising to the challenge of growing in California is truly remarkable. The growers we interact with are far more sophisticated than the caricatures the media tends to portray them as. You have very intelligent folks doing intelligent things with their land and their water.

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