Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Judge reverses direction, farmers will see water rules sooner

A Sacramento Superior Court judge reversed direction on an agriculture lawsuit challenging new farm groundwater rules, meaning thousands of farmers probably will see the rules and expenses this year.

In case you haven’t been following it, this is the end of the historic waiver for agriculture from these kinds of water rules.

Sacramento Judge Timothy Frawley hinted in a tentative decision earlier this year that he might delay the rules and require a rewrite of the environmental studies.

Late last week, he said the studies are acceptable.

That affects growers in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties where farm production amounts to $15 billion annually. The rules will cost farmers about $1.90 per acre, the state estimates, but farm-water leaders figure it’s a range from $3 to $10 per acre.

We’re talking about 850,000 acres of land, so the total costs could range from $1.6 million (the state’s estimate) to more than $8 million (farm-water leaders’ estimate).

“We are gearing up in anticipation that the (rules) will be adopted and implementation will begin in the fall, but that too is very fluid,” said Dave Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District and coordinator of a coalition representing farmers in the region.

The judge also upheld a challenge by the fishing and environmental water advocacy groups. But the rules will not be set aside while the state addresses the technical issue concerning the transition to the new rules.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has been working on these rules for years. Farmers have been dreading them. Environmentalists have been getting impatient waiting for them.

Underground water contamination is widespread in this region with nitrates from fertilizers, septic systems, sewage treatment and decomposing vegetation. Drinking water is threatened for 250,000 people, mostly in small towns.

Environmental and fishing groups wanted more from the new rules, but most of their claims were rejected. The court agreed with one contention: State law was not followed in granting an extension of a temporary ag waiver several years ago.

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a group involved in the legal action, said the regional board needs to penalize offenders and reward those who follow the rules.

Bill Jennings, executive director of Stockton-based Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said: “We work with farmers, understand their concerns and likely could amicably resolve our issues except for the water board’s costly, unwieldy and ineffective bureaucratic octopus.”