12/10/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Why Sea Otters Sued California's State Water Board

California agriculture puts food on the table, wine in our glass, money in wallets... and a toxic brew into our groundwater, rivers and ocean. Today, the contrarian faces of agriculture are being hotly debated in California. Central Coast surface and ground waters are some of the most polluted in California. Fifty-six percent of Central Coast water monitoring sites test "toxic" and 22-percent of sites test "highly toxic."

Last week, The Otter Project, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance sued the State Water Board for delaying regulations to protect the public and the environment from agricultural pollutions. Our groups are defending the public's right to know the who, what, where and how of agricultural pollution.

The flash point of the debate is the Salinas Valley, recognized as the "Salad Bowl of America." Here, rivers, creeks and estuaries are heavily polluted by agriculture and drain into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, making even marine life highly vulnerable to agricultural pollution impacts. In recent years, dozens of sea otters have washed ashore dead in Monterey County, killed by the toxic blue-green algae, microcystis; microcystis blooms in waters with high levels of nitrogen or phosphate, both agricultural fertilizers.

Today's debate centers not just on new regulations meant to stem the flow of pollutants, but on the public's right to know just how bad the pollution really is and where it is coming from. On one side are community activists seeking tougher pollution limits and public access to water quality data. On the other side are too many farmers trying to avoid cleaning up the waste from their operations.

For decades the agriculture industry's lobbyists have worked overtime to avoid water quality regulation. Irrigated agriculture is essentially exempt from the Clean Water Act. On paper, California's water quality laws are stricter than their federal counterparts, requiring all dischargers to obtain permits. But these laws were largely unenforced on the agriculture industry until 2004. In 2004, California's Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board took a small step towards cracking down on agricultural pollution by passing new rules called the "Conditional Ag Order," although most major issues were punted to the required 2009 renewal.

In March of 2012, after nearly three years of delays and hand-wringing, the Central Coast Water Board adopted a new Ag Order designed to protect groundwater and our rivers and ocean from discharges of agricultural toxics, pesticides and fertilizer. But the debate rages on. Both sides immediately appealed the Central Coast Water Board's compromise decision to the State Water Board.

Big Ag went a step further than merely appealing the new Ag Order, and requested a "stay" (deferral) of many provisions in the Conditional Ag Waiver, including key public reporting requirements until after the State Water Board members hear the appeals. The politically appointed State Water Board granted the stay and eliminated a key provision that requires agribusinesses to report their effectiveness in stopping or even slowing pollutant loading.

The public has every right to know the quality of its water and every right to fully understand the risks and benefits of modern agriculture. A 2012 report to the California Legislature found that "[I]n California's Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley, roughly 254,000 people are currently at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water" and "over 1.3 million people are financially susceptible because nitrate in raw source water exceeds the MCL [maximum contaminant level]." By far, the greatest contributor to the contamination is irrigated agriculture.

Legitimate questions continue to swirl unanswered as the debate rages on: Do agriculture's benefits outweigh the public right to clean water? Is farming that does not pollute water even possible?

Everyone in California -- including conservation and environmental justice groups -- are invested in agriculture's success. Farming isn't the problem; the waste is. The excess toxics and fertilizers washing away from farms are wasted materials and the toxic waste is flowing into drinking water, wildlife habitat and our coastal ocean. California agriculture is perhaps the most technologically sophisticated in the world. Public understanding of agriculture's waste will drive farmers to new efficiencies.

Clean water is the essential ingredient to life and is too precious to waste.