Despite new concessions by state regulators, Kern County's ag industry kept up its fight Friday against rules proposed to protect California groundwater against the overuse of fertilizers and irrigation.

Hundreds of farmers and their representatives gathered in Bakersfield Friday at a meeting of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Many argued that the proposed rules are misdirected and unduly expensive for growers.

"We're all using every drop of water and every drop of fertilizer as efficiently as we can," Kern County farm manager Dennis Devitt told the board.

On the other side of the issue, Central Valley environmental justice groups asserted that board staff have overdiluted the proposed measures. They called for tightening the proposed rules, even rolling back some of the state's recent concessions, to ensure that people who drink from area wells are getting safe water.

"It doesn't take a lot of bad acting to pollute an aquifer," said Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst with the national environmental group Clean Water Action.

In the middle of the debate sat the water quality board and its staff, who since 2003 have been working on implementing a groundwater protection law passed by the state Legislature in 1999.

Already the law has resulted in a combination of new monitoring and reporting by farmers whose irrigation water has the potential to affect surface water such as streams and rivers. Proposals discussed Friday would apply similar rules even to farmers whose irrigation seeps underground.

Industry estimates suggest the new rules would more than double the amount of Kern County farmland affected by the law, bringing the total to more than 1 million acres.

One focus of the proposed rules is nitrates, which can cause birth defects, cancer and other health problems. Tasteless and odorless, nitrates are present in high concentrations in some parts of the Central Valley. While nitrates are linked to fertilizers, they also occur naturally and may be produced by industrial activity unrelated to farming.

High salinity, another reason for the proposed rules, threatens farmland productivity but is not considered a big public health threat.

Unique local factors

Ag groups brought in researchers who testified Friday that Kern farmers are among the state's most efficient in terms of water and fertilizer use.

Researchers also said the county's water wells are generally deeper than others around the state, and that this would make it hard to tell whether farming management practices reported under the new rules are having the intended benefits on groundwater.

These concerns, combined with groundwater conditions and management practices that the industry said vary greatly from one location to the next, prompted farming groups to call for further study before the state issues new rules.

But the board's executive officer, Pamela Creedon, said the agency needs to find out what farmers across the Central Valley are doing that could affect groundwater quality.

"To have more (geographically) tailored orders, we need more information," she said.

Recent concessions

Over the last several months, agency staff have offered changes that were welcomed by ag groups Friday. These include allowing small farmers more time to comply with the rules, giving the industry more options for certifying farmers' management plans, and requiring less paperwork from growers whose groundwater quality changes little from year to year.

Environmental justice advocates at Friday's meeting, as well as Central Valley residents whose tap water has been tainted by nitrates, said the state needs to toughen the proposed rules, not loosen them.

Among their latest concerns were the state agency's recent plan to allow groundwater data reporting by geographical areas measuring 36 square miles instead of a single square mile, as proposed earlier.

They also rejected industry calls to make data untraceable to individual farmers, arguing that such information needs to be as detailed as possible to allow regulators to pinpoint areas where contamination is occurring.

Two similar sets of proposed rules were discussed Friday. The first set, for the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed, could be approved by the board as soon as its next meeting, set for Dec. 7 in Rancho Cordova. Although that order would not affect Kern County, it is considered of great importance because of its potential to set precedence.

The second set would govern the Tulare Lake Basin Area, which includes Kern County. Those rules are not expected to come up for a vote until next spring or summer.