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Photograph by Maria Grusauskas
WATER WOMEN: Left to right: Dipti Bhatnagar, Margie Kay and Leslie López of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water with a homemade map of the watersheds in Santa Cruz County.

Nixing Nitrates

A proposed rule requiring farmers to monitor runoff for contaminants is pitting activists against growers

By Maria Grusauskas

JUGGLING hand-drawn maps and posters, Dipti Bhatnagar and Leslie López leave Watsonville's Public Library to pack their props and generous snacks into the trunk of Bhatnagar's sedan. It hardly matters that only a few community members found their way to their Wednesday evening educational workshop on regional water issues—it isn't their first meeting, and it won't be their last.

Bhatnagar and López work with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, a network of more than 70 grassroots and intermediary organizations working to provide low-income and immigrant communities with a fundamental human right: access to clean, safe and affordable water. Tonight's meeting was in preparation for an important July 8 public hearing on water quality, and the two fear that too little is known about the issues.

"There is a need for current information and to help people to be in tune with the water that they are drinking," says López, who says she's gained a new perspective over the last few months working as an organizer for the EJCW. "Some of the communities in Watsonville have water practices that they are not totally conscious of, and tend to operate in crisis mode. They boil their water to get rid of bacteria because they learned that years ago in Mexico. They don't know that there is no bacteria in city water, and they don't know that if there were chemicals or nitrates in the water, they should absolutely not boil it because the toxins become more concentrated."

That's a more common problem than people might think. At least 200 municipal drinking water wells between Santa Barbara and northern Santa Cruz County contain unsafe levels of nitrates, which can cause serious health problems.

"San Jerardo, a small, low-income community just outside Salinas, consumed highly contaminated water for years, suffering many health impacts. Now, in order to cover the costs of treatment, residents are facing [monthly] water bills of $113," says Bhatnagar, Northern California project director for the coalition.

High nitrate levels can cause a condition known as "blue baby syndrome," which decreases the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen. Pregnant women and infants are most susceptible. It has also been linked to certain cancers in animals.

Farms are ground zero for nitrate problems. The California Water Quality Control Board reports that 87 percent of the groundwater nitrate contamination comes from fertilizer used in agriculture. What's more, farmworker communities often use shallow domestic wells, which are much more susceptible to nitrate contamination than municipal wells, says Angela Schroeter, senior engineer geologist for the Central Coast region of the water board. "What we see of the public water supply is likely the best-case scenario," she says. "[Its] quality shows a very conservative perspective of what we might find in private wells in the general area."

Of 44,000 private wells in the Central Coast area, none are being monitored for nitrates under current law. But the draft for a new rule currently on the table could change this. On Thursday, July 8, the state water quality control board will be holding a public hearing in Watsonville to discuss the details of a law that could put the Central Coast Region, which extends from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz County, at the forefront of addressing nitrates. The preliminary draft, should it take effect, would be the first in the state to require all growers to monitor their wastewater for toxins.

"To be fair, there needs to be monitoring so we know what's working and what's not, and so that we can get to a point where we have a quantifiable system in place as to who is putting what in the water," says David Clegern, public information officer of the state water board.

But many members of the agricultural community are expressing their opposition, saying mandatory monitoring would be a waste of paperwork and money and could penalize farms unfairly.

"Pesticides like DDT, which hasn't been used in 40 years, is still detected in waterways, it's still pervasive in the environment," says John Eiskamp, president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.

Perhaps the most unpopular proposal among farmers is that growers plant a 50- to 100-foot "buffer" on both sides of rivers and streams. They see it as seizure of property.

"It is a taking of their [growers'] land without compensation," says Eiskamp. "Furthermore, there is no scientific basis provided, nor does any exist, which supports mandatory buffers as improving water quality in agricultural areas."

As of this month, the new rule has been delayed for a year, and an additional extension of 18 months will be considered during the July 8 hearing, which will be held at 8:30am at the Watsonville City Council Chambers, 275 Main St., Fourth Floor, Watsonville.

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