by Chris O’Neal

Once again, Ventura County is leading the way in environmental protections. New rules adopted by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board require farmers and other industrial agriculturalists to meet higher anti-water pollution measures, including monitoring and testing that are now the strongest statewide. The new rules, known as the “Ag Order,” were first adopted in April and were finalized on Wednesday, June 15, for the next five years.

The Los Angeles water board has authority over parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. Every five years, the board adopts new guidelines for water quality control, which are supposed to ensure that Clean Water Act water quality standards are met. Over the past 10 years, the board has elected to maintain rules that weren’t strong enough, according to Jason Weiner, general counsel and water initiative director for the Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper Program.

“In many instances, water quality was getting worse as the result of discharges from agricultural land,” said Weiner, adding that though there were farmers who went beyond the requirements, those farmers were “few and far between.” “At the end of the day, after 10 years, the agricultural community just wasn’t doing enough.”

The Ag Order includes enforceable water quality limits for wastewater discharges from farms, edge-of-field monitoring of discharges from individual farms and well-testing requirements that the Wishtoyo Foundation says will “protect farm workers from drinking contaminated water.”

The order was supported by an alphabet soup of environmental and Native American activist groups, including the Wishtoyo Foundation, Wishtoyo’s Ventura Coastkeeper Program, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) and the Center for Food Safety.

Ben Pitterle, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s watershed and marine program director, says that prior to the Ag Order, farmers had no deadline for improving water conditions if they were found to be in violation.

“They have not ever been required to actually verify with testing [that] what they’re doing is actually working,” said Pitterle. “Now by a time certain, waterways will have to either meet water quality standards or the famers in those watersheds will have to verify by sampling their own runoff that they’re not contributing to the problems, the repercussion being that there is now the possibility of enforcement.” 

John Krist, chief executive officer of Farm Bureau Ventura County, says that staff worked with the board on the new language and that they believe “It does a pretty good job of balancing legitimate water quality objectives with the practical realities of farm operations.”

“We’re pretty confident that the growers are going to be able to meet those water quality standards in the next five to 10 years as outlined by the order,” said Krist. New requirements could require farmers to change their water management practices by improving irrigation systems, installing filter strips and updating their nutrient application, says Krist, which will add costs for certain growers in the county with persistent surface water issues, particularly for those in the Calleguas Creek and Santa Clara watersheds.

“The investment growers make in improving water quality can also increase their bottom line,” said Krist. “It costs money to buy fertilizer, it costs money to irrigate, and if they can take steps to improve their management and make it more efficient, it has the potential to save them money.”

A majority of growers and landowners in the county are members of the Ventura County Agricultural Irrigated Land Group, managed by the Bureau, to share the cost of filing water quality management plans, monitoring water quality and reporting. Krist says that the program costs between $1.5 million and $2 million a year and expects that the cost will increase with the new rules.

“It is the increased cost of doing business and an investment that the growers have been making for the past decade,” Krist said. “I’m sure they will continue to do so.”

Weiner says that a lot of work needs to be done by county farmers to come into compliance with the order.

“Aside from a few exceptions, almost all the ag community is currently not in compliance with the new rules,” said Weiner. “This new ag waiver will impact the practices of almost every farm in the county in a manner that is protective of surface and ground water.”

According to the 2014 Ventura County Crop and Livestock Report, the estimated gross value for Ventura County’s agriculture exceeded $2 billion in 2014. Weiner says that in light of this, the cost of the improvements shouldn’t be a burden.