FRESNO, Calif. (AP) â€” If it weren't for the constant shipments of human waste from Southern California's cities, Kern County farmer Shaen Magen says his farm would dry up and blow away.
Magen grows barley, wheat and milo for animal feed on 7,000 acres he describes as ``highly alkaline and really very marginal.'' It's so marginal, in fact, that without regular truckloads of treated sewer sludge to be used as fertilizer, the land would be useless, he said.
Magen is paid roughly $25 a ton to dump the sludge on his land.
``The only reason we survive here is that we get a fee for removing the sludge and incorporating it on our farm. We also make our money out of the crop we grow because we get it subsidized by free fertilizer,'' Magen said.
The growing use of urban sewage as fertilizer on industrial farms, however, is unpopular in the San Joaquin Valley. Over the past two years, several county governments have waged legal and political battles against a few local farmers and Southern California sanitation districts over where and how the stuff is used.
Kern, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties have enacted or are drafting ordinances intended to ban or tighten regulations on the practice.
The counties, which account for roughly a third of the state's $28.4 billion annual agricultural output, fear a consumer backlash.
``Folks are concerned that the perception would be that Kern County crops were poisoned with sewage sludge. We know that isn't true, but that is the concern people have,'' said David Price, who as chief of the Kern County Resource Management Agency helped draft the new rules.
Since 1994, federal and state regulations have allowed use of sludge, also called biosolids, to grow animal feed or fiber crops such as cotton. Regulations govern how often and how much sludge can be used, to what extent it can be contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial waste, and what levels of pathogens are acceptable.
The sludge is filtered from urban sewers and siphoned into vats where it's cooked to kill most of the viruses and bacteria. The result is a thick black muckish sludge that's loaded into trucks and driven to composting sites, landfills or Central Valley farms.
In an effort to fight the ``sewage farm'' perception, Kern County enacted an ordinance to ban all but the most highly treated, cleanest sludge by 2003.
To protect their sludge program, Orange and Los Angeles counties, the city of Los Angeles, the California Association of Sanitation Agencies and a handful of farmers who dump the sludge sued Kern County.
In response, Kern County and a group of farmers countersued, claiming the county should have the right to make land-use decisions without outside interference.
``There's a number of scientists who don't believe it's safe, who don't believe the current rules are adequate to protect the land, water or air,'' said Jeff Green, a lawyer for the organically operated Grimway Farms, one of the nation's largest carrot growers and a plaintiff in the countersuit.
``If you're not sure if it's safe, it's best to be conservative,'' Green said.
On the Net: Kern County Resource Management Agency: http://www.co.kern.ca.us/rma/rma.htm
California Association of Sanitation Agencies: http://www.casaweb.org/