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.”

Kern gets bad news: Court stops voter-approved sludge ban

Kern County got bad news Wednesday from a state appeals court in Fresno about its voter-approved Measure E, which outlaws the importation of treated human sewage sludge from other counties.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal sided with a lower court that stopped the measure, saying the county was overstepping its authority. Kern voters approved the measure in a landslide on June 6, 2006, and it has been in court for years.

The decision means the flow of treated human sewage will continue over the Tehachapis from Southern California to Kern County, as it has for many years. The sludge is spread on the ground where animal silage crops are grown. People have complained about flies and odor.

It also might mean that Kings County won’t get as much sludge. A sanitation district representing many Southern California cities bought land in Kings and is set to begin biosolid composting soon.

Meanwhile, Kern authorities said they are weighing their options at this point, but had no further comment. Among the options would be an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Southern California leaders and some Kern land owners had filed the legal action for the preliminary injunction against Measure E. The plaintiffs include County Sanitation District No. 2 of Los Angeles County and Orange County Sanitation District.