A costly new regulation has farm groups worried the year-round lettuce and berry production on the Central Coast will be reduced to just one season, with spiraling impacts on the local economy, such as widespread job losses for farmworkers.

“It's going to dramatically change the pattern of how we grow our crops here,” said Norm Groot, director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “There's right now no science to indicate how we would even begin to comply.”

The ambitious regulation is known as Ag Order 4.0, and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board recently posted its draft proposal for public comment. It would expand new monitoring and reporting requirements while also setting a low cap on the amount of nitrogen growers can apply.

A regional coalition of farm groups is now scrambling under a 45-day window to review the science related to the technical policies proposed, commission an economist to perform an impact study, develop an alternative proposal and rally growers to participate in the process.

Adding further pressure to the timeline, Groot and others who have worked closely with the board for years on the regulatory orders were kept in the dark about critical details in the plan until the full draft was shared.

At the heart of the proposal is a new way of accounting for the amount of nitrogen that is likely discharged into watersheds.

The State Water Resources Control Board passed a regulation in 2018 known as the East San Joaquin Order. It established a statewide precedent for calculating the ratio of nitrogen applied versus the amount remaining in the soil. The intention with the State Water Board was to collect and analyze this data to help determine appropriate next steps, according to Abby Taylor-Silva, the vice president of policy at the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Grower-Shipper Abby Taylor-Silva

Abby Taylor-Silva, the vice president of policy at the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California (left)

The regional board is now “taking it to the next level” by adopting that calculation to set a firm limit on the amount of fertilizer potentially remaining in the soil after the crop is harvested, according to Groot. The board wants that cap to be 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.

“That's a very low number, considering the crops that we grow here in the Central Coast,” said Groot, as he listed out a variety of healthy foods like leafy greens, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables that are shipped nationwide.

Groot said no tools currently exist to show how growers would comply with that limit. He is also skeptical the nitrates left in the soil are actually contributing to groundwater degradation, since farmers are using “a heck of a lot less fertilizer” than even a decade ago and irrigation practices have improved, allowing less water to seep into the ground or run off the field.

Taylor-Silva did see indications in the new draft regulation that the board might open the door for opportunities to credit farmers in that calculation for their existing practices that benefit water quality. The plan does include this type of credit for composting.

Just as concerning to Groot is that Ag Order 4.0 also requires vegetative buffers along ditches, creeks and other waterways. He said the science is not in on whether that improves water supply. But it comes at a steep cost to the grower, who will have to trim back acreage to accommodate the buffers, which could ultimately affect land and rental values.

Last year, ag groups delivered a presentation to the board explaining how the buffers would also conflict with food safety standards. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement – as well as today’s retail buyers – have set strict standards for safe distances between vegetative areas and production fields. Yet the board did not change its course in the draft plan.

One positive addition Taylor-Silva noticed in the draft, however, was language encouraging third-party groups. The coalition is currently assembling an alternative plan to present to the board that includes third-party coalitions, which would help to manage compliance issues especially related to surface water and focus on watershed management.

Groot described a “daunting” list of requirements for monitoring, reporting and data management that growers must already meet.

“(Small growers) simply don't have the manpower or the resources to do this on their own,” he said of the plan. “I don't think they're going to be able to absorb this, nor will they be able to comply with all the requirements.”

Demand would grow for the limited amount of outside experts who do this work, which would significantly drive up their rates. Large growers would also struggle, as the board would require more monitoring, reporting, sampling and testing for those farms.

Groot and others involved in the regulatory process are also racing to complete an economic analysis that factors in the potential impacts. They will commission an economist but will have to first educate the individual on the agricultural issues, with just a matter of days left over to put together the preliminary findings. The full analysis would be brought into the review process at a later time.

That report would hopefully answer some of the many questions around what the regulation could mean to the local economy, such as an amount of job losses or reduced tax revenues from a downsized ag industry. Taylor-Silva pointed out that irrigated agriculture accounts for about 20% of Monterey County’s economic viability.

The coalition is also working with agronomists to explore other unintended consequences. If the regulation makes it infeasible to use some fertilizers, they want to know how that would affect the quality of the crop and if other materials would be available and effective.

“We're scrambling our best to get some expert opinions into the conversation so that they can basically educate the staff and the board members on what agronomically is possible when you're growing the types of crops that we grow here,” said Groot.

He also stressed that the regional board must first understand it will take “many, many years” to accomplish the water quality goals, due simply to the nature of groundwater aquifers.

The board has to adopt its regulation by January 2021, when Ag Order 3.0 expires. But it could approve a new regulation as early as Fall. Farm groups are calling it an artificially short timeline, a complaint stemming from the first iterations of the order.

Initially, the regulation served as an information gathering tool. In 2012, the board expanded the scope to add more reporting requirements for large growers. The State Water Board was contesting parts of that order in a lawsuit as the Central Coast Board was approving Ag Order 3.0 in 2017.

With the East San Joaquin Order coming online, the regional board renewed their order on just a three-year schedule, rather than the standard five, knowing it would soon have to incorporate the new state regulation into the plan. The board assumed that would be a quick process and little would change in the regulation.

Ag groups then teamed up with fishing and environmental groups in a separate lawsuit over that process. The settlement agreement bumped back the expiration date for Ag Order 3.0 by a year. That deadline is now rapidly approaching.

The board has scheduled four days in May to discuss the proposal, along with the public comments and any alternative plans submitted. It is also hosting three workshops later in March to go over the order and answer questions.

Groot and Taylor-Silva are doing all they can to reach a compromise in the coming months and avoid further appeals to the State Water Board and further lawsuits.

“I'm hoping that now that there is a document in place,” said Taylor-Silva, “there are opportunities to get more specific and illustrate the challenges a bit more than when (the order) was more theoretical.”