Watchful farmers see San Joaquin Valley streams improve

A coalition of farmers aiming to keep pesticides and other pollutants out of streams has been contacting members who might have let them escape from their land.

The result has been improved control over the releases, said a report this week from the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition.

It contends that the farmer-funded effort, launched in 2003, shows that the state does not need to increase its regulation.

"For the first time in our existence, we have a good story to tell you about what's happening in our waterways," coalition chairman Parry Klassen said.

He spoke at the coalition's annual meeting, which drew about 140 people Monday to the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.

The group released its latest annual report on testing of key waterways in Stanislaus and a few other counties.

The report showed progress on three waterways that have been especially prone to pollution, Klassen said. They are Dry Creek east of Modesto, the Prairie Flower Drain near Crows Landing and Duck Slough south of Merced.

Because of past problems, farmers near these waterways have been contacted by Klassen and vice chairman Wayne Zipser, who also manages the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

They advised the farmers on improved pesticide practices, such as checking the wind before spraying or recirculating tainted irrigation water that otherwise would run off into streams.

The coalition is one of several that formed for irrigated farmland under a process overseen by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The goal is to keep pollutants that can sicken people and fish from getting into rivers, canals and other waterways.

Joe Karkoski, acting assistant executive officer for the board, said he could not comment on the coalition's 2009 results because he has not received them.

Coalition efforts helpful

Gary Caseri, who issues pesticide spraying permits as agricultural commissioner for Stanislaus County, said educating farmers is worthwhile.

"The more we can do through a coalition-type effort, the less we have to deal down the road with regulation and enforcement," said Caseri, an adviser to the group.

Farmers applying pesticides can prevent problems by monitoring the weather, spraying from the outside in on farm edges and noting the location of nearby waterways, homes and farmworkers, Caseri said.

"Think about those consequences and think about who is nearby," he said.

The farmers coalition covers the area east of the San Joaquin River in Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties. Mariposa, Tuolumne and southern Calaveras counties are included, but they have little irrigated land.

The group includes about 2,400 farmers on nearly 550,000 irrigated acres, which is 55 percent of the eligible land. Dairy farms are not included because they must get permits under a separate program dealing mainly with manure.

Each year, coalition members pay $50 per farm plus $2 per acre for the testing and other work. By joining, they can avoid the higher cost of getting individual permits from the water board.

"It would be impossible for every one of us to do that, and it would be expensive," said member Henry Ahlstrand, who grows walnuts and grapes near Hughson.

The coalition started by testing water samples from 22 sites. The number has dropped in half because many of the sites have been testing clean, said Michael Johnson, a Davis-based consultant who oversees the sampling.

The latest report shows continuing problems with bacterial pollution in some places. Coalition leaders have said this could be from septic systems or other nonfarming causes.

Klassen said standards for water quality likely will get tougher — including new rules on groundwater and on fertilizer use — so the coalition needs to keep proving its worth.

"We've got a success story," he said, "and we want to spread it around."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.