CALIFORNIA STANDS OUT as the nation’s top agricultural producer, with 77,500 farms spanning 56 of its 58 counties. Like most other states, however, few farmers use the free “Call Before You Dig” service. The newly-created California Dig Safe Board aims to change that through a series of new safety regulations.
When the state’s safe digging law was up for revision in 2016, lawmakers prioritized creating rules farmers could comply with. The effort followed a deadly 2015 gas explosion on a Bakersfield farm involving a tractor pulling a six-foot ripper shank that tore into a high-pressure transmission line, killing one and injuring two others. Lawmakers wanted to be sure any changes made to the law would protect farm workers, while also addressing issues many agricultural groups reported with the shallow depths of some facilities located under their fields. In response, lawmakers created a one-year Area of Continual Excavation (ACE) ticket available to farmers and certain flood control operators, and charged the Dig Safe Board with implementing it through regulations.
The ACE process, which takes effect in 2020, will allow farmers to call one of California’s two One Call centers, USA North 811 or DigAlert, once a year at their convenience, and request the year-long ticket. When a high priority facility (a petroleum or gas transmission line) is present, the farmer and the facility owner will be required to meet and discuss how to safely operate around the line.
Throughout the rulemaking process, the Board spent substantial time traveling the state to learn from farmers to ensure its regulations were consistent with common sense and experience. Members and staff were surprised to learn from multiple farming groups about the strained relationships they had with underground facility owners and the impacts those relationships were having on their ability to conduct everyday operations. Because of this, the Board paid significant attention to designing a process that creates and promotes relationships between farmers and utility owners and fosters open communication from both sides.
The process adopted by the Board requires famers and facility owners to discuss how deep the infrastructure is buried. While it is still the farmer’s responsibility to determine depth, the Board’s ACE regulations invite facility owners to disagree and bring their own information to the onsite meeting to reach a shared understanding of the facility location. By doing so, the Board’s ACE regulations create a balanced process that promotes shared responsibility for safety between the farmer and the facility owner.
A lack of awareness among California farmers of the requirement to call 811 prior to any farming activity presents a major challenge to the Board’s efforts to improve safety. Board analysis from Kern County, which is California’s fourth largest ag county and home to 1,731 farms, found that farmers requested less than 150 tickets a year for normal farming practices between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2018. This will require the Board to conduct extensive outreach prior to its regulations taking effect in 2020. The Board’s outreach efforts will ensure an understanding of the requirements among farmers and improve their ability to comply.
California is one of only two states, along with Connecticut, that offer a year-long ticket for areas of continual excavation and is home to one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. The Board believes this new process for farmers will be successful in improving safety around California’s underground infrastructure and hopes the process can be a model for other safety regulators.