As science and policy director for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and a 14-year resident of Carpinteria, I appreciated Bob Franco’s June 16 letter to the editor, “Don’t drink the water,” for its effectiveness in raising awareness about an important pollution issue impacting Carpinteria’s local waterways. 

Channelkeeper is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the Santa Barbara Channel and its watersheds. Since 2001, Channelkeeper has monitored water quality in local creeks, including those that flow into the Carpinteria Salt Marsh. 

Last March, Channelkeeper was informed about unseasonal flows in a drainage area that flows to the western end of the Salt Marsh. As Mr. Franco indicated, our follow-up sampling resulted in detections of nitrate over 13 times higher than state standards for drinking water and up to 130 times greater than limits deemed protective of aquatic ecosystems such as the Salt Marsh. Laboratory staff indicated anecdotally that the sample was one of the highest nitrate concentrations they have ever seen in a local stream.

Nitrate pollution in drinking water can be toxic for humans and it can cause harmful algal blooms that degrade water quality and harm wildlife in aquatic ecosystems. 

The Regional Water Quality Control Board is committed to investigating this particular discharge; however, their process can be discouragingly lengthy, and to this day, this discharge continues. Until the Regional Board’s investigation is complete, we won’t know for sure what types of practices are contributing to this polluted discharge, however, we can be confident that the nitrate contamination is linked to excessive fertilizer application.

According to the Regional Board, on average, farms apply 10 times more fertilizer than is safe to protect groundwater supplies. Forty-four percent of stream and river monitoring sites in agricultural watersheds exceed the drinking water standard for fertilizer pollution by two-fold or more, and this standard does not even begin to protect aquatic ecosystems from harm. 

Mr. Franco is justified in his frustration with the lack of accountability for agricultural polluters. Many people are unaware that agricultural pollution is exempt from the Clean Water Act. In the Central Coast Region of California, irrigated agriculture has been regulated since 2005 through a program formerly known as the “Ag Waiver,” now called the “Ag Order.” Despite its intent, the Ag Waiver has relied on voluntary efforts to achieve water quality standards. Egregious polluters have traditionally flown under the radar because farmers have never been required to monitor and report their own discharges. 

Some of this is changing. The latest iteration, Ag Order 4.0, adopted last March, contains first-time-ever fertilizer application limits crafted to prevent the most excessive pollution loads. A multi-decadal timeline is also established with the goal of reaching a point in the distant future when groundwater quality starts to improve. The order is far from perfect, but it’s an incremental step in the right direction. 

We can’t rely on the agricultural industry, however, to make the necessary changes on its own. Right now, despite lip service to protecting the environment, heavily funded industry advocates – including Western Growers Association, Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties and the California Farm Bureau Federation (Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau included) – are appealing Ag Order 4.0 to the State Water Board. At face value, the industry’s appeal would strip away any meaningful regulation of irrigated agriculture in the Region.  

The Regional Board itself struggles to meet the scope of this environmental problem. The delayed response of the Regional Board to this local pollution complaint is further evidence of an underfunded, over-burdened, regulatory institution that despite best intentions, is beset with challenges. 

It should be noted by those tempted to correlate this discharge with the increase in local cannabis cultivation, that the cannabis industry has specific requirements related to water quality protections that go beyond what applies to the rest of the irrigated agricultural industry. 

Where does this leave us? Well, agricultural pollution continues to be a major problem both regionally and in the Carpinteria area. Ag Order 4.0, if left intact, may help us get moving in the right direction over the long term. However, the reality is that the accountability we seek may need to come from our own community itself. 

Carpinteria is a community of neighbors, fellows, colleagues and friends who all have some connection to agriculture. Each of us must do our part. We need to work together to protect our most valuable resource.

Ben Pitterle is Channelkeeper’s interim executive director and science and policy director. He has been a Carpinteria resident since 2007 and has been involved in state policy regarding agricultural pollution for 13 years. Since 2006, Pitterle has supported Channelkeeper’s mission by developing and managing water quality monitoring programs, directing advocacy campaigns and managing litigation and enforcement initiatives. Before joining Channelkeeper, Pitterle worked in the hazardous waste management and environmental remediation fields.  

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