Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I have a generally optimistic and positive view of my fellow human beings.  I tend to think that most people are out to do the right thing, and this perspective (for the most part) has translated to a fairly understanding viewpoint on government regulation.  I think that most regulators are well-meaning people, and that most regulations are created to address an important set of issues.  For example, I complain about meat inspection regulations sometimes, but I also know that the inspection system does an outstanding job of ensuring my family (and my customers) that our meat is safe and wholesome.  Last night, however, I attended a meeting that shook my confidence in the sensibility and good will of regulators and regulations.

I'm not entirely clear on the history of this issue, but here's what I think has happened.  Early in the previous decade, farmers and ranchers who irrigated their crops within the boundaries of California's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board were granted a waiver from the requirement to obtain an individual water discharge permit (which would have also required individual "waste" water monitoring).  Environmental organizations forced the Regional Board to rescind this waiver, and in the ensuing chaos, the Regional Board decided to ask farmers and ranchers to form watershed coalitions which could monitor water quality on a watershed basis and provide some assurance that the farms within the watershed were implementing appropriate management practices.

Last night, I attended the annual meeting of the Placer Nevada South Sutter North Sacramento Subwatershed Group here in Auburn.  Again, I'm not entirely clear on the history, but our subwatershed group has been monitoring water quality in our watershed for about 7 years.  In this time, monitoring has demonstrated a very low threat of water quality problems from irrigated agriculture.  Based on presentations made last night, however, the Regional Board has decided that these results don't demonstrate our collective success as farmers and ranchers in protecting water quality; rather, the Board believes that they aren't asking the right questions yet.  In other words, we're obviously polluting, but the monitoring program simply isn't asking the right questions.  Farmers and ranchers are guilty of polluting until they can prove otherwise.  Part of the dues paid to each subwatershed group are passed on to the Regional Board (as I understand it) to fund their enforcement activities.

Water quality is important to me - I like to fish, I like to swim in our local rivers, and I like to know that my family's drinking water is safe.  I have to say, however, that the presumption of innocence is also important to me.  I can't help but thinking that there might be a better approach than assuming all irrigators are polluters as well.

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