Under a plan to limit nitrates in groundwater, area farmers could face significant fees and stiff regulation, according to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
However, regulators signaled a more light-handed approach for those who join the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition -- a nonprofit formed in 2003 to assist the farming community in complying with water board regulations.
"It's going to be more cost-effective to be part of the coalition rather than to be regulated individually," said Joe Karkoski, spokesman for the regional water board. "If we regulate them directly, there would be monitoring for their specific farm."
Starting next year under the regulations, farmers will be required to keep "nitrogen budgets" that record how much nitrogen they apply to their fields.
The coalition has been chosen by the regional water board as a third-party agency to collect the budgets from area farmers and submit regional data to regulators, a system expected to be used in other areas of the valley.
"From our perspective, it's much more efficient to work with eight or nine coalitions rather than 30,000 individuals," Karkoski said.
Farmers in the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed -- which includes Merced, Stanislaus, Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties -- have until May 13 to join the coalition or face regulation by the regional water board.
If growers choose to be regulated individually, the regional water board recently announced that it will charge an annual administrative fee of $750 for 10- to 100-acre farms, plus $5 an acre.
Membership dues for the coalition are $50 a member and $4 an acre.
The groundwater regulations are part of a decadelong campaign to regulate water discharges from farms, called the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Monitoring Program.
Tensions heightened in March after a University of California at Davis study linked nitrate contamination in drinking water to agriculture. The study found 96 percent of nitrate contamination in groundwater came from farms, threatening the drinking water of 250,000 valley residents.
Nitrates are cancer-linked chemicals that come from a number of sources, including fertilizers and animal waste. Nitrates also have been found to cause a potentially fatal infant blood disease called blue-baby syndrome.
Water activists have signaled some approval for this latest plan, but criticized it for not laying out clear penalties for those who do not comply.
Coalition officials, who are tasked with conducting a groundwater assessment report by the end of the year, said the region has a problem with nitrate contamination.
"When our reports are done, we're going to find out we have high levels of nitrates in groundwater," said Parry Klassen, coalition executive director. "We don't need that report to tell us that. We've been collecting data for over a year now."
However, he added that if farmers are properly educated, stringent enforcement mechanisms will not be necessary. "We're basing our entire program on grower cooperation with us to show the water board they're doing the right thing."
At the same time, regional water board officials have signaled that growers will not be held responsible for the levels of nitrates in the groundwater on their property.
Farmers will be required to apply fertilizer responsibly and document that usage, Karkoski said.
"The reality is even if we stop adding excess nitrogen, it may be many years before you see improvements in groundwater quality," he said. "So our focus is that growers stop those practices that added to the problem. Then we'll see improvements over time."
The plan ultimately will apply to the entire Central Valley, according to officials. The next area to be regulated will be the Southern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, which includes Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.