FRESNO -- Months after researchers concluded farming is responsible for a sea of underground water contamination in the valley, the state is poised with new rules with an advertised $100 million cost to farmers.
But state authorities Friday said they will knock more than 80 percent off the estimated cost. They say they will announce the reduction Tuesday at a workshop in Tulare where worried farmers from Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties are expected to converge.
For more than a month, farm leaders have been trying to analyze the draft rules using the $100 million estimate. Now they are not sure what to think.
"It's a weak economic analysis," said David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District and coordinator of a coalition representing farmers in the four-county area. "That's why we have filed suit over it. No matter what they say now, it's still leaves us all with uncertainty about how much this will cost."
The state on Tuesday will explain the draft groundwater rules, which are scheduled for approval early next year. They will hear comments and issue a rewritten draft later this year.
The rules would affect about 3,000 farms in the four counties, covering more than 1.6 million acres of farmland. The idea is to monitor underground water and control discharges of contaminants such as fertilizers and pesticides.
For farmers, that could involve drilling monitoring wells, testing water, hiring consultants and completing stacks of paperwork. Staff for the Central Valley Regional Quality Control Board, a state agency, last month based cost estimates on the experience of other farming areas where the rules have already passed, and came up with the $100 million figure.
On Friday, the board told The Fresno Bee it had stepped back from that estimate.
"Since the draft proposal was released, we have refined our cost estimates for the Tulare Lake Basin and believe the per-acre cost will be much lower," the board said in an e-mail.
Farm leaders have complained that they need more certainty than they're getting in the process.
"Bottom line, we won't know what it's going to cost until after the rules pass," said Bob Blakely of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
This discussion is part of the state's campaign over the past decade to regulate water discharges from farms. The Irrigated Lands Regulatory Monitoring Program already has rules focused on protecting streams. Dairies, too, have already been regulated.
Now the state has begun to regulate discharges to underground water, a move applauded by water activists.
But activists say state authorities need to lay out penalties clearly for polluters. The draft rules only spell out fixes for pollution problems, said lawyer Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center in Visalia.
"The draft doesn't have a trigger for penalties," she said.
Activists like the idea that the rules will require management of the valley's most widespread drinking-water problem nitrates.
A University of California at Davis study released in March says 96 percent of the problem comes from agriculture, and it threatens the drinking water of 250,000 valley residents.
Nitrates are chemicals from farm fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and decaying plants. They can cause a potentially fatal infant blood disease called blue-baby syndrome. Nitrates also have been connected to several cancers.
Tulare County has some of the area's worst nitrate-contamination problems in rural towns such as Seville and East Orosi.
The UC Davis study suggests better monitoring and management of fertilizers. By using only the amount of fertilizer needed by plants, the nitrates would be controlled.
Farmers already aim for that goal and have become far more efficient, said leaders of water-user groups.
Yet, the state assumes all farmers are discharging to the groundwater, said Orth of the Kings River Conservation District.
"In other words, everybody is guilty until they prove themselves to be innocent," he said.
Growers also are concerned about giving out specific information about fertilizer and pesticide use on their farms, as water activists would prefer. Revealing such information publicly would put them at a competitive disadvantage, water leaders said.