… Does corporate farming truly NOT see the correlation between the quality of the water they use to irrigate the crops ‘we’ consume and the long term deleterious effects of nitrate pollution…?
California Farms Get Testy Over Water Quality
California row-crop farmers may be required to test their private wells for nitrate, a widespread groundwater contaminant linked to over-fertilization.
The world’s most pervasive groundwater pollution problem – nitrate in drinking water – is under scrutiny in the richest farming region of the United States.
This week, for the California Legislature revealed that 250,000 people living in Central California, including in the U.S., are currently at risk for nitrate contamination in their drinking water. Many of them are among the poorest Californians.
Nitrate, in this instance, is a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer. In drinking water, high concentrations of it can interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of infants younger than six months, and, if left untreated, from “blue baby” syndrome. that long-term consumption of nitrate in drinking water may increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Europe began tackling the problem in 1991 by where the groundwater and streams were polluted with nitrate. Those zones now encompass 40 percent of the landmass in the continent. Today, 27 countries test for nitrate at 31,000 monitoring stations on or near farmland; and, with some overlap, at 27,000 monitoring stations in lakes, streams, and the ocean. Since 1991, , nitrate use has dropped off sharply in Europe.
In Central California, according to the state report, cropland is the source of more than 90 percent of the nitrate that winds up in underground basins. Contamination can take a long time: some of the nitrate in well water today comes from fertilizer that was applied a century ago. The report, prepared by the University of California, Davis, recommends charging farmers higher fees for fertilizer and using the money raised to help rural communities pay for expensive water treatment systems.
Most of the nation’s lettuce, broccoli, and strawberries come from the agricultural valleys of the Central Coast. Vegetable and berry farms from Monterey to Santa Barbara, an area that includes the Salinas Valley, the nation’s Salad Bowl, bring in $7 billion in gross revenues per year. A that farmers in this area have been over-fertilizing their irrigated crops — by nearly 40 percent for the past decade alone — sending 75,000 tons of nitrate into local rivers and groundwater basins every year. that 120 public wells and probably thousands of private wells are contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrate because of the farmers’ wasteful ways.
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has the authority to regulate polluters, would review the test results; and farmers with 500 acres or more would face an approximate deadline of 2015 to stop over-fertilizing. The proposal also would tighten pesticide use on the largest farms. A board vote, following two years of hearings, is expected today or March 15 in San Luis Obispo.
“It’s our most important order of the past generation,” said Roger Briggs, the board’s executive director. “Usually, when we have some regulatory action, there’s one significant problem like a gas station cleanup or a few wells that are threatened. But in this case, we’ve got all these different facets – riparian and aquatic habitats with toxicity, destruction of vegetation along creeks, and thousands of wells that are not just threatened but are actually degraded. It’s big.”
California water officials first brought the to the attention of the Legislature in 1988. Today, Central Valley dairy farmers are required to test their wells for nitrate (the nitrate there mostly leaching from manure), but the rule does not apply to farmers with irrigated fields. Beginning in 2004, Central Coast farmers were given five years to voluntarily monitor their fertilizer use, but the underground water quality did not improve, .
“There’s a fear I think amongst growers that if they do throttle back on fertilizer, their yield will suffer,” said Briggs. “They may see that as a bit of a gamble. It’s a strong cultural norm, and it’s not easy to sway or change that norm.”
The Central Coast proposal requires farmers with 500 acres or more of irrigated cropland to test their wells for nitrate once a year; smaller farmers would have to test them only once. The idea is that the farmers would pump and fertilize, effectively treating the groundwater by letting the crops take up the nitrate in it. It’s a that would require many decades.
For their part, the farmers have told the board they object to being portrayed as evil polluters and held accountable for nitrates that have been in the groundwater for a long time. They favor shifting the responsibility for groundwater monitoring to farm coalitions run by consulting firms. These firms would gather data from public, not private wells.
Norm Groot, executive director of the and a director of , said the proposed rules ignore the impacts of septic systems, urban runoff, and old military bases in the region. With modern techniques, he said, farmers have dramatically reduced the amount of fertilizer they use.
“There is no science to say that a farmer is a direct contributor to the water directly below him,” Groot said. “We accept some of the responsibility, but we are not willing to take full responsibility. To skewer ag completely for that really isn’t fair.”
At the same time, a coalition of environmentalist groups, including the, Sierra Club, and , favors an earlier board proposal that would have required all farmers, regardless of the size of their operations, to test their wells annually and stop over-fertilizing within six years.
“I no longer have confidence that we will be targeting the right people,” said Steve Shimek, the Coastkeeper executive director, noting that even small farms can be big polluters. “The trajectory of this process has been to make the rules weaker and weaker. Agriculture has tremendous political power, and it has been getting away with polluting California’s water for decades.”
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