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Reducing regulations for small farmers a priority for Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board

John Orona
Staff Writer

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board heard from a panel of researchers and ranchers last week describing how the unique characteristics of upper watershed irrigated pastures may call for a separate set of regulations that would reduce the regulatory burden on Nevada County farmers.

However, a decision by the water board on those different regulations isn’t expected until summer.

The board was petitioned by Nevada County’s subwatershed group Executive Director Lesa Osterholm to create separate regulations for farmlands with low impact to water health, such as irrigated pastures, managed wetlands, organic and long-term crops, and foothills and higher elevation areas.

Osterholm said all Nevada County farms should be recognized as low-threat areas due to their vegetation coverage, low sediment run-off risk, slow flow of water, and dearth of harmful chemicals and tilling.

Currently, small farmers in so-called low threat areas and large industrial farmers face the same regulations and costs regardless of their potential impact to water health.

“The regulations are one size fits all, we go by the same rules as big guys down in the San Joaquin Valley growing all kinds of crops,” Nevada County cow-calf farmer Laura Barhydt said.

During the meeting, UC Davis researcher Ken Tate presented findings that supported claims from local farmers that the risk of contamination due to fertilizer or pesticide use is low and the risk of erosion and sediment loss is minimal.

According to research Tate presented, well-managed pastures help clean and maintain water sources and present low risks to water quality.

UC Davis agricultural economist Tina Saitone presented research suggesting the economic model of farms in Nevada County is dissimilar enough from those across the state to warrant a separate fee and regulation structure.

According to Saitone’s research, a grower would need 12 acres of irrigated pasture to generate the same net returns as an acre of almonds or 13 acres to match the return of an acre of walnuts.

“Irrigated pasture operations will pay 12 times the fee to have enough land to generate the same net return,” Saitone’s presentation said.

According to Sue McConnell, supervising water resources control engineer for the water board, while the issue is a prominent one, the agency is still in the early stages of tackling the problem.

“It is definitely a high priority for our board,” McConnell said. “The board seemed supportive of our effort, but we are still fact-finding and gathering information.”

McConnell said the agency will continue studying the matter and present more findings to the board next summer, when it expects to make a decision on the regulations.

According to board documents, some possible paths forward include creating entirely separate regulations for low-impact crops, reducing the regulations they are subject to or creating a waiver system.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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