MERCED COUNTY — The official deadline has passed for area farmers to sign up under the state's new "nitrogen budgeting" program.
Regional officials estimate about 150,000 acres of agricultural land in the area remain unregistered.
"It's the water board's job to get these growers in or treat them appropriately for being in violation of the regulation," said Parry Klassen, executive director for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. "The regional board has their work cut out for them."
While the water-quality coalition estimates that as many as 2,000 commercial farmers have yet to sign up, regional regulators are not ready to express concern.
"I don't think we know what to expect," said Joe Karkoski, with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. "I think there's a lot of sorting out to see if those parcels are really commercial agriculture."
However, commercial farmers who continue to refuse to enroll in the program could face fines of up to $1,000 a day, Karkoski added.
Under the program, farmers are required to document how much nitrogen-based fertilizer they apply to a particular crop. That and other information must then be submitted for review by state regulators.
To make the program easier on farmers, the regional water board picked the water-quality coalition to collect the nitrogen budgets and submit aggregated data for different regions.
"In an overregulated state like California, this program is the best option for landowners," said Amanda Carvajal, executive director of Merced County Farm Bureau.
However, with the signup deadline passed, farmers must now pay the state a $200 fee to join the water-quality coalition or submit their monitoring data directly to the state.
In addition to the cost of preparing the water-quality reports, farmers reporting directly to the state will be charged an annual administrative fee of $750 for 10- to 100-acre farms, plus $5 an acre, according to the regional water board.
"It could be extremely costly," Carvajal said. "I don't want anyone to be punished, but a lot of people think they can do the monitoring on their own, and they don't understand the magnitude of what needs to be done."
Within the next two weeks, state regulators said, notices will go out to agricultural landowners who have not signed up, explaining their options.
"We're planning on following up very quickly," Karkoski said. "It's not going to be one of those things that sit in a black hole."
Within the last two weeks, more than 800 commercial growers joined the water-quality coalition, bringing the total to about 3,984 farmers enrolled
in the nitrogen budgeting program, representing 705,000 acres, according to coalition data.
In the end, the program could benefit farmers, who are often blamed for nitrate contamination in groundwater, Klassen said
"We've developed an approach that we believe will show the water board that we are applying fertilizer correctly," he said. "I believe what we have in the groundwater are legacy problems, but we don't yet have the data to prove that."
If overapplied, nitrogen-based fertilizer can cause nitrate contamination in groundwater, which has been linked to cancer and the potentially fatal "blue-baby" syndrome.
The program eventually will apply to all of the state, but officials started in the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed, which includes Merced, Stanislaus, Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.