Farmers in California’s second most populous county are pleading for more flexibility with a pending regulation at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Six years ago the State Water Resources Control Board approved an order establishing new requirements for nitrogen monitoring and reporting and for nutrient management plans in the Central Valley. The regulation, known as the East San Joaquin Order, sought to restrict the amount of nitrogen leaching into groundwater aquifers, which can contaminate drinking water supplies.

It set a precedent for all nine of California’s regional boards to adopt similar rules.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board went further, setting a cap on fertilizer use, which triggered the state water board to review and reject the additions. Winegrape growers in the North Coast, meanwhile, argued new rules would treat farms like polluters and criminals.

Dana GrootDana Groot, San Diego County Farm Bureau

The water board for San Diego County is the latest to draft a regulation incorporating nitrogen management requirements and applying them to regional waterways. In a recent hearing to review the tentative order, growers stressed to the board that local agriculture is far different from that of the Central Valley and should not be held to the same standards.

Staff at the water board recognized that the average farm size in the valley is 365 acres, while in San Diego County it is just four acres and each operation might contain as many as 100 different crops, compared to the valley’s tendency toward monocropping.

According to the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group, a grower consortium led by the local Farm Bureau, nurseries account for about 70% of the county’s $1.8 billion agricultural value, while avocados, citrus, tree nuts and other fruits make up about 20%. Most of the 5,000 farms operate year-round, with multiple harvests on nearly all crops, and often span hillsides, since much of the flat area is developed.

Understanding nutrient requirements and how much the plants take up would require data that for the “vast majority of things we grow in San Diego just does not exist,” stressed Valerie Mellano, a consultant to the growers' group.

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“This is not an area where it's a big commodity crop or a predominant area of study,” Mellano said. “[The reporting] will take many, many, many years to achieve and many millions of dollars to get underway.”

She said agriculture is easily blamed for water quality impacts, even though suburban homes and other land uses are often next to the farms and use the same fertilizers and pesticides, but with less precision and training.

Several commenters echoed Mellano’s argument about San Diego County agriculture being different and of the potential impacts to small operations.

“I would call on you to work with us and help us advocate to the state why we are different,” James Hessler, director of West Coast operations at Altman Specialty Plants, told the regional board. “One size does not fit all.”

Dana Groot, president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, warned that the cost of compliance with the proposed regulation could upend the economics for many operations and lead to abandoned orchards, posing increased wildfire risks.

Yet Patrick McDonough, an attorney at the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper, dismissed claims that the regulation is unreasonable and unattainable.

“To just say we can't meet those water quality objectives, that's not acceptable,” he said.

Board Chair Celeste Cantú sympathized with many of the comments on the order.

“Just because we're different here doesn't mean we're totally exempt,” said Cantú. “We have to figure out a way to make where we live more protected than what it is.”

She recognized farmers are well aware of the costs and impacts of nitrogen applied to their crops and said that she has “hardly met a homeowner who understands what is even in the stuff they buy at Lowe's or Home Depot that they put on their yard.”

The complexity of the order and the many nuances in the region’s farming practices compelled the board to extend the comment period for the proposal. Stakeholders have until July 15 to add their input. Staff expect the board to adopt the order in November.

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