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Justins Blog

Nitrate Contamination is Ongoing Problem for Salinas Residents
February 2013

By Justin Ebrahemi

California’s “salad bowl” has been contaminated, and some local Salinas residents are paying the price. After decades of inorganic fertilizers, the groundwater has been polluted by nitrates and industrial solvents, causing physical and financial hardships for some communities.

A state-funded study by University of California, Davis has revealed that one in ten persons living in Salinas Valley is at risk for drinking water which exceeds the nitrate standard. The report warns that if nothing is done to alleviate the problem, the percentage of those at health and financial risk could reach 80 percent by 2050. If environmentally-sound practices were to be implemented, however, nitrogen pollution from farm and livestock operations can be reduced by 30 to 50 percent.

Nitrogen in the form of nitrates is absorbed by plants but can also move into the groundwater via a process called leeching. They are tasteless, odorless compounds that can lead to a variety of medical problems. Infants who ingest excess levels can lose their ability to carry oxygen in their blood, a fatal condition called “methemoglobinemia.” Nitrate consumption in adults can lead to thyroid illness and cancer. With the advent of chemical solvents and fertilizers in the industrial revolution, nitrate contamination has been a growing problem, particularly in Salinas Valley.

San Jerardo, a small Valley community bordered on all sides by miles of agricultural field, is just one of the many communities that have suffered from nitrate contamination as a result of synthetic fertilizers in the agricultural practices of peripheral farms. The community thrives with children, disabled individuals, and retired farm workers. Jerardo members reside in small refurbished homes surrounded by a fortress of eucalyptus trees, separating the community from miles of farm lands.

In the 1990’s, the co-op received their water through Alco Water Services, a Salinas-based company. Alco were found falsifying their lab tests to mask the nitrate problem, according to Horacio Amezquita, manager of the co-op. Some residents like Eliseo Alcala experienced rashes, hair loss, and eye irritation. Amezquita decided to take action.

Because San Jerardo is a co-op, Amezquita has had difficulty raising funds to alleviate the contamination. In 2001, the federal government removed Alco from San Jerardo, and residents used bottled water until a new system was established. In 2006, Amezquita fought for purification and was rewarded with a temporary water filtration system using money from AG labor. Four years later, the county received stimulus money on San Jerardo’s behalf, and replaced the filtration system with a new well 2 miles away from the co-op, supplying the community with fresh water.

However, the solution left residents with the ongoing costs of the new water system. In five years, the cost of water has spiked from an average of $25/ month to $115, according to Amezquita.

San Jerardo resident Jose R. Hernandez believes those responsible for contamination should be paying the co-op’s water bill. He remains distrustful of the current water supply, as he claims it tastes odd. “We still buy gallons from far away ‘cause there’s not much trust in the water. Like many Jerardo members, he’s skeptical of the surrounding farms. “I have friends who manage these fields; I think they use illegal pesticides in the middle of the night that’s polluting our land. I have red eyes and rashes, and I think it’s from that.”

Hernandez’s son is a survivor of cancer, an illness he believed to be the result of years of nitrate contamination. “A lot of people have cancer here, some have died. “

Oversight organizations, like the Central Coast Agriculture Water Board, have been making gradual progress addressing water contamination in Salinas Valley.

In 2004, the Water Board issued the “waiver of waste discharge”, an order that required watershed monitoring. Last March, the organization adopted a new AG order, suggesting that farmers protect surface water quality by managing nutrients. The order also provides a timeline for growers to report compliance with practices, using a third party if they desire. The new system of “tiers” considers a farm’s acreage in how much information they must report. The larger farms have to report the most information, but the data doesn’t necessarily relate to the causes of pollution in the region.

Marc Los Huertos, Professor for Environmental Science and Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, believes the AG order was poorly developed and needs to be modified to address the specific source water contamination. “If you’re a big farmer, you wear a bigger target, but it is unlikely it will demonstrate any success because these are the guys that have already invested tons into this process. There’s never been information that says which tier is the source of the problem, it’s not linked in a way that makes any sense.”

Consequently, some of the most sustainable farmers were penalized for not reporting their efforts. “From a scientific standpoint, I felt like it was dismissing the ones who were working the hardest”, says Los Huertos.

Part of Los Huertos’ work is how to instill a cultural shift so that growers can document their solutions to protect groundwater. “I’m trying to incentivize for the guys who are doing a good job”, he explains. “How do we get at those growers that aren’t doing a good job?”

Steve Shimek, program manager for Monterey Coastkeeper and executive director of The Otter Project, has a different perspective. “(Los Huerto’s) approach is to incentivize farmers to use less nitrates, my approach is to have clear water standards so they cannot pollute in excess. It’s an incentive approach versus a regulatory approach.”

Due to the new tier system, some of the smaller farms aren’t being regulated as much. Huertos believes some farmers are being wrongly targeted. “It’s ironic, when the AG order started to be renegotiated a few years ago; the first thing the growers called for is better enforcement.”

But some central valley farmers want AG orders repealed. “If you’re not regulating at all, and you have sudden regulations, it’s a huge impact. It’s an expense they haven’t otherwise found out”, says Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action. Many farmers are expressing that monitoring has nothing to do with solving the problem-it only has to do with accountability.

Clean Water Action has been calling for state-wide regulations for farmers, as they believe volunteer actions are not sufficient enough to protect our water. “One of the difficulties is that part of the central coast order has been stopped. Ag is telling us they’re already implementing measures, but just voluntarily right now”, says Jennifer Clary.

Huertos advocates for more specific policies farmers can adhere to- “The growers I know in that region are really proactive guys. I think there’s a general sense that they want to be part of the solution, but they don’t know how. And frankly, as a scientist, it’s hard to figure out a concrete solution.”

Yet a concrete solution is exactly what San Jerardo’s manager is calling for. With a lifetime of organic farming, Amezquita is appalled by how local farms are conducting business. “When you came in, you saw all that water that’s thrown out? There’s no rain. So why is so much water sitting there? I’ve been farming all my life, that’s not good farming practices.”

Water quality isn’t the only problem that Jerardo is dealing with. Currently, the co-op is trying to figure the most efficient and sustainable way to treat their wastewater. They recently obtained a County grant to fix their water system, but Amezquita believes farmers should be part of the solution as well. “They’re wasting valuable time that can be used to mitigate the amount of damage from cheap fertilizers. You need some kind of organic matter. Organic soil has thousands of organisms while synthetic fertilizer doesn’t. It’s like you eating vitamins versus real food. ”

“It’s kind of an embarrassment that we let it happen for so long and it wasn’t addressed in a very thought-out way. I think the residents are disappointed”, says Huertos.

Joseph McIntyre, Executive Director of AG Innovations, a non-partisan nonprofit, is calling for immediate response. “I think there’s a pretty broad agreement that communities need safe, clean drinking water immediately. The solution for that is quite different than the long term solution. Nitrates will be in water for at least 50 years, we’re obviously not going to wait that long”, says McIntyre.

AG Innovation looks over the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment, an organization that focuses on the long-term drivers of nitrates and “how to find the perfect balance between our need to produce food crop and how to minimize nitrates that remains in soil”, explains McIntyre.

The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $20 million to $35 million per year to treat water in community systems, which are highly susceptible to nitrate contamination. It is estimated that about 254,000 people live in these communities.

Amezquita realizes the financial hardships of solving a problem that began decades ago. “There’s not enough money to cure the problems the industry has created by overproduction, by creating a synthetic way of farming.”

Jennifer Clary believes the financial burden is not as bleak as it seems. “Any financial aspect would be on the grower’s. However, the program calls to use fewer nitrates which would save farmers money. The amount they would save hasn’t been measured.” The Central Coast Water Board is also issuing financial assistance in some cases to help growers reach compliance.

Environmental progress is taking the form of agricultural milestones that the farming industry, while sometimes reluctantly, adheres to. While the political wheels for regulation are slowly turning, San Jerardo residents are taking the financial burden of a pervasive water fiasco that no one wants to take the blame for.

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