Monterey County Farm Bureau

Nitrates in Groundwater

A recent report published by University of California, Davis, has publicized the on-going issue of nitrates in our groundwater.  This report specifically focused on the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake basins, areas where high amounts of fertilizer applications have occurred in past decades, or on-going cattle/dairy operations produced large amounts of manure.

Nitrogen is required by all crops to produce a healthy, safe result: fresh fruits and vegetables that are marketed in our local grocery stores and farmers markets, produced either conventionally or organically.  Improvements in nitrogen management have reduced the amount of fertilizer applied to crops in the past decades; in fact, studies show that, while yields have increased exponentially in the past two decades, the actual use of nitrogen has leveled off and has remained constant for many years now.

But we can all do better.  New science and research is developing improved ways to manage and apply nitrogen to crops.  Salinas Valley farmers and ranchers have been early adopters of these new methods and remain vigilant in their search for better ways to manage nitrogen when growing fruits and vegetables.  Nitrogen is an input cost, and in recent years that cost has increased considerably and farmers won’t apply fertilizer they don’t need.

Studies show it has taken decades for the nitrogen applied generations ago to reach the groundwater as nitrates.  And it will take decades to make improvements; cleansing groundwater is a long, expensive process.  Today’s farming practices are much improved over those of even one generation ago, and the contributions to the problem in groundwater should be viewed as a legacy issue, not as a punitive action to those currently farming responsibly.  With all things in our society, science and research have improved our knowledge base.

The UC Davis report will be peer-reviewed to validate the study findings; much data previously collected was not included in the report and needs to be validated to show that groundwater quality in the Salinas Valley is not impaired to the degree that the report determines.  Until then, we maintain that the groundwater in Monterey County is being improved through the pro-active solutions growers have adopted in recent years.