Popular business threatened over state water regulations
The cider, the apple pies and the scenery are just some of the things that draw people to Bloomingcamp Ranch near Oakdale.
Today, the business that’s served customers for more than 40 years faces an uncertain future because of state regulations that target small public water systems, the owners said.
“We have a water problem, we are willing to fix it, but the regulations make it so costly, we can’t afford it,” co-owner Mathew Steinberg said.
In 2016, Coni Bloomingcamp and Steinberg, her husband, took over the ranch operations from Coni’s parents. The ranch off Highway 120, a mile east of Oakdale, includes almond and walnut orchards along with the Farm Stand and Bake Shop that tempt customers with Dutch apple pie, apricot turnovers, fresh eggs and produce. Events are held on the picnic grounds.
In late 2017, nitrate levels in an onsite well crept over the 10 milligrams per liter safe drinking water standard, leading to county and state orders for the ranch to reduce the nitrates in the water. The state considers it a small public water system because the ranch serves at least 25 customers per day and has a certain number of water connections.
The business has switched to using bottled water but that does not meet the state’s approval as a permanent solution. The ranch has a May 10 deadline for submitting a technical plan to the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources. If that isn’t done, the ranch could be fined up to $1,000 per day.
Steinberg estimates that hiring an engineer to tell what’s needed to treat the water will cost $30,000 to $40,000, and the ultimate cost of a treatment system could be $200,000, depending on what regulators are willing to approve.
“Unless the Board of Supervisors is able to address our request and let us continue to operate until the regulations can be changed, we are out of business,” Steinberg said this week.
The owners have concluded a new well would be contaminated before long by the chemical residues of farming in the region or naturally occurring metals in the ground. The ranch would need to put a line under Highway 120 to connect the bakery, residences and public restrooms to a community water system north of the highway. So Steinberg has looked into treatment systems.
When Steinberg asked for support from county supervisors Tuesday, Supervisor Vito Chiesa said sympathetically that other businesses in the area are dealing with the same stringent regulations, including some that supply water for 25 employees or more. The county is obligated to enforce the rules handed down by the state.
“If the businesses are willing to provide bottled water to their employees, why would the state not accept that?” Chiesa said.
Chiesa said he’s received calls from eight constituents that maintain small public water systems. The owner of Mo’s Oasis near Hughson, which sought a land use permit from the county Tuesday, has dealt with a state action on its water supply and plans to connect to the city of Hughson’s water system. Mo’s Oasis is being rebuilt after fires last year.
The regulatory orders could be another source of friction between the State Water Resources Control Board and local interests upset with a state plan to reduce river diversions for farmers. But state officials stressed there are public health reasons for addressing a worsening problem with water contamination in wells.
Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the state board, said the state is vigilant about nitrates because they can cause harm to infants with limited exposure. Nitrates are a cause of “blue baby” disease by interfering with the process of carrying oxygen in the bloodstream.
In addition, arsenic and 1,2,3 - trichloropropane, linked to industrial chemicals and pesticides, are raising water quality concerns.
Polhemus said he was familiar with the compliance order for Bloomingcamp Ranch. “We have tried to help him,” Polhemus said. The state agency can’t prescribe a treatment method for the ranch’s specific water system, he said. The owners need to hire a professional to help them through the process.
Connecting to a community water system is usually the best solution for small systems, Polhemus added. The state disagrees that “don’t drink from faucet” signs in the restrooms are a permanent solution, because people tend to assume water from faucets is drinkable.
Polhemus said hiring an engineer to help the ranch comply with the order would seem to cost more like $10,000 to $20,000 and a treatment system could cost upward of $100,000, plus ongoing expenses of treating the water.
Jami Aggers, environmental services director for the county, said the county will refer the matter to the state if the ranch does not meet the May 10 deadline. The state would make the decision on penalty amounts, she said.
Aggers said Bloomingcamp received a compliance order a year ago and has not made much progress. “That is why the state requires us to establish a due date,” she said.
The county regulates about 200 water systems that have 199 service hookups or less. Aggers said the water quality standards keep getting tougher for an increasing number of contaminants of concern to regulatory agencies.
Steinberg figures the nitrates could be removed by a reverse osmosis process costing $20,000. He said the state official’s estimate of $100,000 for a treatment system is out of reach for the business.
He said the ranch has contributed to the community by hosting a high school cross-country championship and agricultural field trips for students. Betsy and Jake Townsend and a half-dozen employees run the Farm Stand and Bake Shop, which was packed with customers Wednesday.
Steinberg suggested that regulatory orders against small businesses be held in abeyance until new rules are written for the special circumstances of rural businesses; otherwise, many like the Farm Stand and Bake Shop won’t survive.
“People going to the mountains stop to take pictures. We have tour buses stop,” he said. “It is amazing the people you talk to who know the ranch.”