Moving the Dial on Regulations

In the year and half since Ag Innovations’ last word on the topic of regulations, progress has been made toward the recommendations advanced in our two reports on the subject: Permitting Restoration (2010) and Regulating for Agricultural and Public Outcomes (2014).

Last September, the Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Act was passed, simplifying the permitting process for small-scale, voluntary habitat restoration projects. This year, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) launched a web-based tool to inform California business owners, including farmers, about regulations, permits, resources, and incentives available to them. The department is also providing training and incentives for state agencies to improve their permitting processes and customer service.

Ag Innovations was initially prompted to explore the regulatory environment when members of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment (CRAE) identified the topic as a critical and long-standing issue for California ag and environment. From a farmer’s perspective, the montage of regulations affecting their business is often cumbersome and confusing, can stifle environmental performance, and can delay innovative projects. The cost of compliance with regulations is frequently cited as a major barrier to the viability and profitability of California farmers. Meanwhile, members of the conservation community are concerned that existing regulations do not achieve a sufficient level of environmental protection and can impede projects of public benefit. The regulators themselves acknowledge both sets of problems, but report that the static nature of current laws and regulations does not provide them the flexibility or adaptability needed to address the dynamic problems society faces today. Limited resources and competing mandates further compromise regulators’ ability to address many of the challenges.

Both Permitting Restoration and Regulating for Agricultural and Public Outcomessought to address these challenges by engaging leaders from agriculture, the conservation community, and government to collectively develop recommendations to improve and simplify the existing regulatory system. We are encouraged to see progress being made toward the implementation of those solutions.

In September 2014, the Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Act was signed into law, achieving three of the recommendations in Permitting Restoration:

  • Streamline the permit application process
  • Expedite projects with clear environmental benefits
  • Provide permit assistance

The law directs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to offer a faster and simpler permitting process for voluntary conservation projects such as aquatic habitat improvement, sediment and pollutant reduction, increased vegetation along stream corridors, and the removal of fish passage barriers. Completed applications are guaranteed to be approved within 30-60 days. This law reduces significant barriers and enables landowners to implement the small-scale conservation projects that will improve their own land and the natural environment we all share.

On July 1, 2015, GO-Biz launched the CA Business Portal, a one-stop website that consolidates information from multiple government sites and assists business owners in navigating different stages of business development. The Portal links to three notable resources:

  • CalGOLD: an online permit assistance tool that helps businesses identify requirements for operating in California
  • Business Mapping Tool: helps businesses identify the regulations applicable to their location
  • Quick Start Guides: regulatory guides for common business types

In the last year, GO-Biz added Cottage Food Operations and Aquaculture as new business types to CalGOLD. GO-Biz plans to continue adding new business types and making the site more user-friendly.

The Portal advances several recommendations from Regulating for Agricultural and Public Outcomes:

  • Increase the flow of information critical to decision making
    • Develop a comprehensive resource on permit requirements
    • Increase the specificity of the business types listed on the CalGOLD
  • Develop a regulatory roadmap
    • Develop an online permit assistance tool with a) links to relevant codes and regulations, b) contact information for decision makers at each point in the process, and c) a map tool to inform users of existing regulatory considerations.

GO-Biz has also begun offering a Lean 6-Sigma program to state departments focused on identifying inefficiencies and training staff to make significant improvements in their services. Twenty-four departments, including State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Pesticide Regulation, and Department of Food and Agriculture, have participated thus far. Breaking Barriers to Doing Business is another GO-Biz program recognizing government streamlining efforts and sharing best practices. Both programs are working to improve permit efficiency and provide good customer service, which are two additional recommendations in Regulating for Agricultural and Public Outcomes.

It is exciting to see so much progress in a relatively short amount of time. The most significant next steps remaining from the reports’ recommendations are to build stronger and more productive relationships between regulators and the regulated, and to improve coordination among agencies in a way that achieves the underlying goals of regulation while reducing the number of duplicative, conflicting, or otherwise uncoordinated regulatory requirements. We look forward to monitoring the new developments over the coming months and years, and facilitating implementation of the remaining recommendations as we can.