Environmentalists critical of Calif. farm policy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As BASS Times was going to press, it appears that California has backed off its plan to "force" farmers to reduce runoff of pesticides and other pollutants into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, as well as other streams in the Central Valley.

Originally, that plan would have ended agriculture's 20 year exemption from state water pollution controls that other industries must follow.

Bowing to pressures from agricultural interests, the state now intends to extend exemptions for another three years for the valley's 25,000 farmers, who work 7 million acres of irrigated crop fields, vineyards and orchards.

To maintain their exemptions, farmers must begin to identify and monitor pollutants washed off fields and develop plans for reducing them.

Critics contend that's a toothless version of what Gov. Gray Davis originally promised.

"Farmers have a lot of clout in the state," said Bill Allayaud of the Sierra Club. "Farmers don't like regulation, but that's too bad. If that farmer pollutes, he needs to be singled out and enforced against."

More than 500 miles of rivers and streams and more than 480,000 acres of waterways have been identified as "impaired" in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because of pollution from farms, as well as runoff from cities, industries and mining.

But experts say agriculture is the single largest pollution source for much of that water. Farm runoff contains pesticides, fertilizers, sediment from erosion, and high concentrations of salt and selenium leeched from irrigated soil.

These contaminants impair fisheries by robbing the water of oxygen and killing insects and other invertebrates that fish need to survive. They also increase the costs of water treatment in Sacramento, Stockton and other West Coast cities that depend on the river system for drinking water.