Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Existing fertilizer fee is used in research, not cleaning up water

A state report last month suggested a farm fertilizer fee to help fix drinking-water problems, especially in rural towns around the San Joaquin Valley.

I wrote about it, but I should have added that there already is a fertilizer fee in California, a reader said. The existing fee funds research, however, not dirty-water cleanup.

It is the Fertilizer Research and Education Program in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Last year, Assembly Bill 2174 from Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, made the money available for research on more efficient application of fertilizers.

It would not provide near enough money anyway. The analysis on the fund last year showed it would be worth about $1 million. The state needs $36 million a year to address drinking water problems.

The state report last month focused on nitrate contamination, which comes from fertilizers, animal waste, septic systems and sewage treatment plants.

study released last year by the University of California at Davis said the problem threatens water for 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield. Nitrates can cause a potentially fatal blood disease in infants.

Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for  some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities. Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.

I have not seen any legislation yet to raise the funding.

Activists challenge new ag groundwater order

The tug of war over California’s groundwater continues over a 1 million-acre swath of the San Joaquin Valley, north of the Fresno area.

For the last decade, the state has studied and discussed ways to protect groundwater beneath farm fields. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board late last year issued hard-fought orders for several thousand farmers north of the San Joaquin River.

Activists in early January told the state the orders don’t do the job, and they need to be rewritten.

Activists say farm chemicals and pollution would continue to pollute the water, monitoring would be inadequate and people in small towns would have to continue living with poor drinking water quality.

They asked that authorities stop the new orders for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

The petitioners are community groups, including Asociacion de Gente por El Agua (AGUA), Fairmead Community and Friends, and Planada en Accion.

These challenges take time. The state will have nine months to respond.

If the challenge is denied, the next stop is probably Superior Court in Sacramento. The lawyers who filed the petition with the state are Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center and Phoebe Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance.

The petition notes that it has been 13 years since legislation was passed requiring farm groundwater regulation. The disputes over the program may take a few more years to resolve.

This is the first large coalition in the Valley to come under the groundwater program.


Lawmakers want to fix bureaucratic funding maze for clean water

Small, impoverished towns are sometimes left for years with tainted drinking water while they wade through a cryptic state process for public funding to fix the problem.

Two frustrated lawmakers this week will start a streamlining effort that probably will result in several new bills next year.  The lawmakers are Assemlymembers Henry T. Perea, D- Fresno, and Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.

“We’re getting pretty fed up,” said Perea, who has worked for funding in such Tulare County towns as Seville, Monson, Cutler and Orosi. “We might want to consolidate this process under different agencies.”

At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Sacramento, Alejo and Perea will convene an oversight hearing of the Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee to take testimony from more than a dozen people. If you want to follow it live, go here.

Thomas Harter, a University of California at Davis researcher, will briefly discuss his landmark research released this year on nitrates, the most widely found contaminant. It comes from fertilizer, animal waste, septic systems, sewage treatment plants and decaying vegetation.

The contaminant threatens the drinking water for more than a quarter of a million people in the Valley, according to Harter’s research.

Yet in places like Seville, which was featured last year in a Fresno Bee series of stories on drinking water problems in rural towns, it has taken years just to secure funding to study a fix.

This week, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a $690,000 grant to study the best ways to fix Seville’s problem. The study money has been years in the making and there have been bureaucratic snags along the way, as The Bee reported last year.

Even with the study money in hand, it probably will take more than a year to get started on a fix for the town’s crumbling water system.