Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, an organization with the mission of protecting and restoring local water resources, has joined a broad coalition of environmentalists, fishing organizations and Latinx and farmworker community groups in a lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board, challenging their decision to deprioritize nitrate pollution.

This past September, a regulatory order which included various measures to protect against nitrate pollution, known as Ag Order 4.0, was repealed and remanded by the Water Board after undergoing legal pressure from a number of agricultural organizations in early October. The Daily Nexus spoke to the executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper (SBCK), Ted Morton:

What could you tell us about your history with water quality? How did you come to care about these issues?

Morton: “When I graduated from law school 30 years ago, I moved to Washington DC and began working for American Oceans Campaign, a non-profit conservation organization. My first assignments were connected to the Clean Water Act regulations and legislation – specifically beach water quality, estuary protection, and stormwater pollution prevention.”

“Clean, safe, and reliable water is essential for life. It is imperative that there are effective programs and laws to protect water quality for communities and wildlife.”

What would you consider to be some of the most important implications of nitrate pollution in regard to ecological and human health? 

Morton: “A leading source of nitrate pollution in California is irrigated agricultural operations. The over-application of nitrate fertilizer on these lands is a significant issue. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board found that nitrogen from fertilizer is the primary cause of “widespread and severe groundwater nitrate contamination observed in the central coast region.” Communities of color are experiencing high nitrate levels in both ground and surface waters. The Central Coast Regional Board sampled 2600 on-farm wells throughout the region and found that 28 percent exceeded the water quality standard for nitrates.”

“Nitrate consumption is especially dangerous for infants and pregnant women. It can contribute to “blue baby syndrome.” It also can cause cancer and thyroid disease in adults.”

“Nitrate pollution can also contribute to toxic algal blooms in surface waters.”

What groups of people are being the most impacted by nitrate and agricultural pollution?

Morton: “Farmworkers and communities of color, particularly in the Salinas Valley, Gilroy-Hollister Valley, and Santa Maria River Valley area, must contend with contaminated water supplies that threaten their health and require them to find alternative and often unaffordable water supply for drinking and other basic needs.”

How does the impact of nitrate and agricultural pollution differ between surface and groundwater systems?  How does the extent of the impact and the clean up process differ between the two?

 Morton: “Many surface waters along the Central Coast have been designated as impaired due to excessive nitrate pollution. These waterbodies should be priorities for pollution prevention and reduction. Key issues from nitrate contamination of rivers, streams, and other surface waters include harmful algal blooms, limitations for recreation, and impairment of fish and wildlife habitats.” 

“Groundwater supplies are also significantly affected by nitrates leaching through the soil. Once nitrate fertilizer application levels are reduced to levels that protect public health, it is estimated that it could take additional decades for the groundwater to be safe again for drinking and other public uses.” 

How well do you feel the original Ag Order 4.0 addressed the ecological and health concerns associated with nitrate pollution? 

 Morton: “The Central Coast Regional Board’s Ag Order 4.0 contained a few strong measures to address nitrate pollution. The most significant one was to require a subset of growers who are excessively applying nitrate fertilizer to abide by hard numeric limits. This would have increased accountability and focused efforts on those growers who are more significantly contributing to the problem. Unfortunately, the State Water Resources Control Board struck this measure down in its September decision.”

“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.”

Claire Wineman, president of Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties was quoted in the Sun as saying that the remanded order “more appropriately balances ongoing improvements and advancements with real world constraints.” Do you agree with this assessment? What is your perspective on Ag Order 4.0 and its regard for real world constraints? 

Morton: “It is important to protect the health of farmworkers and their families from the public health impacts of agricultural pollution. A more effective Ag Order 4.0 would make significant, meaningful steps in this direction.”

What would it mean for your team and the other organizations you’ve partnered with to win this lawsuit?

Morton: “Success in the lawsuit would drive stronger and more effective regional and statewide actions to protect farmworker communities and water quality from nitrate fertilizer and pesticide pollution.”

In addition to their current work on agricultural pollution, SBCK is continuing its efforts in community outreach with programs such as Board Walks—hikes aimed at building awareness of and engagement with local water sources —and its Marine Protected Area (MPA) Watch volunteer programs. SBCK is also continuing its work in Indigenous rights advocacy, as evidenced by their recent attendance at “Rally at The Rock,” supporting the inclusion of an important Sacred Heritage Site for the Chumash community within the boundaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.