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SLO County judge sides with the public's right to know 

Reading through a judge’s ruling on a lawsuit can be a slow slog through a bog full of muddy legalese, with the prized hog hiding within the jargon. 

In the case of an Oct. 28 ruling on a lawsuit filed against the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board by Carmen Zamora and the Environmental Law Foundation, the pork chop is that the public’s right to know trumps an individual’s right to privacy. At least in this particular case, which involves the 2013 Ag Order, nitrate-contaminated groundwater, and an advocacy group’s desire to ensure that the water board and growers are complying with drinking water regulations. 

“The public is entitled to know whether the regional board is doing enough in the way of on-farm best management practices to protect the public’s water supplies,” the ruling by SLO County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall stated. “Given the heavily polluted condition of Central Coast groundwater supplies, it is debatable whether the regional board is doing an adequate job of achieving the important goals of the Water Quality Act.” 

The ruling comes after a two-years-plus battle between the Central Coast Groundwater Coalition and the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) that has the Regional Water Board stuck in the middle trying to balance landowners’ rights to privacy with the public’s right to know. The coalition is made up of growers from Santa Clara County to Santa Barbara County and is helping them comply with the terms of the 2013 Ag Order, which requires growers to test wells on their land for nitrate levels and compile that information for the water board. If their wells test too high for nitrate, the order also requires growers to notify people living on the property, provide an alternative source of water to those residents, and then show proof that they’ve done both. The coalition acts as a voice for its membership and a go-between with the water board.

The fight is over access to letters sent by coalition members informing people living on their land about nitrate-contaminated drinking water and the responses to those letters.

Individual growers dealing directly with the water board are required to hand those water notification letters and responses into the board, therefore those letters become part of the public record. The coalition held on to the letters on behalf of their growers, and while it showed the letters to the water board, it wasn’t required to turn the letters in. The Environmental Law Foundation worked with CRLA to file the lawsuit, which asks the court to mandate that the coalition letters become accessible to the public. Crandall did exactly that.

“The court recognized that the regional board’s policy violated fundamental principles of democratic governance,” James Wheaton, the foundation’s legal director, said in a statement. “The board delegated its regulatory authority over growers to a group which is entirely controlled by the growers themselves.” 

Angela Schroeter, a regional water board spokesperson, told New Times that the water board is constantly evaluating its programs and trying to improve how it works with the regulated community—which, in this case, is made up of growers—to protect water quality. And that includes trying to balance requests from the regulated community to “maintain confidentiality when justified” with the public interest in disclosure.

“The court ruling affirms that drinking water notification letters required by the Central Coast Water Board to inform well users of drinking water contamination in agricultural areas are public records. As a result of the court ruling, the Central Coast Water Board is taking steps to make the documents available to the public,” Schroeter said.

Parry Klassen, the coalition’s executive director, told New Times that the coalition was still considering its response to the decision.

“Our attorneys are still reviewing the judge’s ruling,” Klassen said.

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