Nitrate Pollution: One Place Environmental Justice and Environmental Advocacy Meet

In 2021, the Central Coast Regional Water Board (Regional Board) adopted Agricultural Order 4.0. This order contained measures to reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater caused by the agricultural sector. Specifically, Order 4.0 set numeric limits to regulate the amount of chemical nitrate fertilizers growers could use in their fields.

In September 2023, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) issued Order WQ 2023-0081, which repealed Order 4.0’s numeric limits. At the same time, the State Board upheld Order 4.0’s omission of protections for rivers, streams, and riparian habitats. This decision will have statewide impacts because the State Board asserted that all its decisions on groundwater pollution are “precedential.”

In response, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) joined a lawsuit filed by a diverse coalition of environmental justice and environmental advocacy groups to challenge the State Board’s decision.

The coalition consists of rural Latino community and farmworker groups, recreational and commercial fishing groups, and environmental advocacy groups. In addition to CSPA, the coalition includes the San Jerardo Cooperative, Comité De Salinas, Monterey Coastkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation Of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute For Fisheries Resources, California Coastkeeper, The Otter Project, and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. This coalition is diverse because the impacts of nitrate pollution on human communities and ecosystems are far-reaching.

Many Central Coast growers use more nitrate than their crops need.  When growers use fertilizers on their crops, nitrate not absorbed by crops can enter groundwater and surface water.

In response to the State Board’s decision, the coalition filed a petition for writ of mandate with the Superior Court. The petition states that “growers currently apply on average 340 more pounds of fertilizer nitrate than their crops take up and that is removed through harvest. In other words, the average grower discharges 340 pounds of nitrate into groundwater per acre, per year.”

High nitrate levels in drinking water cannot be removed by filtration. When people drink water with high nitrate levels, it exposes them to a higher risk of cancer, thyroid disease, vision problems, and skin rashes. When pregnant women and infants drink water with high nitrate levels, it can cause the blood disorder methemoglobinemia, which affects the body’s ability to produce oxygen. This condition can be fatal to fetuses and infants.

The San Jerardo Cooperative provides housing to low-income farmworkers. For almost 30 years, the community of San Jerardo has been “chasing clean water.”  Horacio Amezquita is the community’s general manager. In a 2019 CalMatters commentary, Amezquita wrote, “Since 1990, the people of San Jerardo have drilled one well after another, only to see each closed as a result of agricultural contamination including nitrates and pesticides.”

In 2012 the Regional Board adopted the first Agricultural Order that required growers and landowners to test wells for nitrate pollution. Angela Schroeter of the Regional Board reported that 26% of domestic wells tested were above the safe level for nitrate, and 10% of those were three times higher than the safe level.

The 2012 Order did not include any enforceable measures to reduce pollution. Communities affected were provided with funding for bottled water until new wells were dug. The expense for these new wells was reflected in water rate increases.

The coalition’s petition states that “San Jerardo residents now pay approximately four times as much for water as before the water contamination, even after factoring in assistance provided by state and federal government.”

Since 2012, nitrate pollution in Central Coast groundwater and surface water has become worse. Testing and voluntary measures were not enough to compel growers to reduce the amount of nitrate fertilizer they used on their crops.

In California, and particularly in the Central Coast Region, Latinos and other people of color are less likely than white people to have access to safe drinking water and healthy waterways for fishing and recreation.  In November 2021, the State Board passed a resolution to address policies that have led to this inequity.

In the resolution, the State Board said, “race is strongly correlated with more severe pollution burdens. However, until recently, few of the Water Boards’ policies, programs, or plans expressly considered or addressed racial inequities.”

The State Board’s decision to omit enforceable nitrate limits and protections for streams, rivers, fish, and wildlife is a continuation of this inequity.

The State Board’s failure to effectively regulate the agricultural sector’s pollution of groundwater, rivers, and streams also has far-reaching ecological impacts. A diverse cross-section of California’s population will feel these impacts.

Nitrate pollution in rivers and streams causes an overgrowth of harmful algae, making the water toxic to humans and animals. In a recent interview, Ted Morton of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper said, “Although finding that surface waters were being contaminated by nitrates and pesticides, the Central Coast Regional Board’s Ag Order 4.0 did not include additional requirements for use of vegetated buffers between the edge of fields and nearby rivers, streams, and creeks that can reduce nitrate and pesticide pollution and provide habitat for wildlife.”

In a press release announcing their lawsuit, the coalition challenged the State Board’s decision to uphold Order 4.0’s lack of “buffers that would protect streams, rivers and wetlands from toxic pesticides while providing critical habitat to Central Coast fisheries, including threatened Steelhead.”

The petition filed by the coalition also contests the State Board’s assertion that no regional board in California has the power to adopt numeric limits to regulate the agricultural sector’s use of nitrate fertilizer. Despite “detailed factual findings in the Regional Board record,” the State Board delayed action pending review by an “expert panel.”  This will impede efforts to reduce nitrate pollution across the state.

Clean rivers, streams, and wetlands are necessary to support fish and wildlife. Clean waterways also help to deliver uncontaminated water essential for human survival. Despite their different perspectives and membership bases, every group in the coalition has reached the same conclusion — nitrate pollution must stop.

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