TULARE -- More than 400 farmers and agriculture industry leaders packed a state water board meeting this week to air their concerns over a plan to protect the region's groundwater from contamination.
It was standing-room only for several hours at an informational meeting held by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The seven-member board heard a day-long presentation by staff members on a draft of the rules to monitor groundwater and control discharges of contaminants such as fertilizers and pesticides.
The rules scheduled for approval early next year will affect about 3,000 farms in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.
The state's plan could involve drilling monitoring wells, testing water, hiring consultants and filing stacks of paperwork.
Many farmers objected to the potential cost of the water monitoring. Although the state initially estimated the cost at $120 per acre, that figure has since been revised to $21 an acre.
Still, some farmers balked at having to pay for the monitoring.
"Why are you just putting this on the backs of the farmers?" said Ed Chambers of Porterville. "We all realize there are some problems, but everyone who lives here has a stake in this and they should all pay for it."
Water board officials said one of the biggest water problems in the region is nitrates, a chemical that comes from fertilizers, septic tanks, animal waste and decaying plants. The chemicals can cause a potentially fatal infant blood disease called blue baby syndrome and has been connected to several cancers.
Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California at Davis have concluded that irrigated agriculture is a major source of nitrate pollution in groundwater.
"And there is a significant issue with nitrates in Tulare County," said Clay Rodgers, the board's assistant executive officer. "The area has some of the worst problems with nitrates."
Industry officials told the board that the proposed rules do not take into account the advances many farmers have made in reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
"There is a constant belief that agriculture continues to farm in a manner parallel to the 1960s," said a statement by the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a citrus industry group. "Obviously, our irrigation methods have changed dramatically."
Eric Miller, general manager of South Valley Farms in Kern County, said his almond and pistachio operation has reduced its water use by 20 percent by using micro-sprinklers and drip-irrigation methods.
The company uses sensors to monitor how much water and fertilizer is applied.
"You have not considered the improvements and investment we have made," Miller said. "And how do you know if we are contributing to the problem or are dealing with a legacy problem?"
Pamela Creedon, executive officer of the regional Water Quality Control Board, told the audience that one of the goals of the water-monitoring program is to determine what farmers are doing on their farms to reduce water use and groundwater contamination.
She also agreed that part of the nitrate contamination is the result of years of farming practices, not necessarily current ones.
"But if it is polluted, we have to respond," Creedon said. "Water-quality laws are there to protect everyone, agriculture included."
The board will collect comments made at Tuesday's meeting and prepare for the next round of public comment.
Staff members anticipate that could happen by October.
Fresno Bee reporter
Robert Rodriguez can be reached at (559) 441-6327, email@example.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.