Date: Mar 01, 2013
March 2013 - Produce Rule Explored

It’s a given that the concept of ag waivers for discharge of irrigation water is going the way of the dinosaur.  What has the ag industry worried is the work of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to replace those waivers with what they think is a better system.

Last year agriculturalists were concentrating the effort on fighting the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in that region.  The battle was waged in and out of hearings and it’s not done yet  as the final decision will be up to the State Water Quality Control Board as they consider an appeal filed by growers.  Currently, the fight has shifted to the Central Valley Water Board, which spans from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

To refresh one’s mind or to fill in the uninitiated, the ag waiver system began back in 1999 when agriculture was granted waivers for waste discharge related to irrigation.  Eventually new legislation was passed and a new program developed that required agricultural users to basically justify their waivers on a continual basis.  That has led to the program of conditional waivers with the Water Quality Control Board creating their conditions, and with the waivers having to be renewed periodically.

In essence the regional water boards want to do away with the conditional waiver system and create a more permanent plan to regulate and monitor runoff from agricultural irrigation.

Gail Delihant, director of California government affairs for Western Growers, said the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has been looking at the waste  discharge issue for many years and in December finally adopted new waste discharge requirements to protect ground and surface water from irrigated agricultural discharges in the first of eight areas that make up the Central Valley region.  The newly adopted requirements apply to farmers in the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed.  Growers can pay a per acre fee by joining an approved third-party group to monitor and help growers comply with the programs requirements or they can be directly regulated by the Central Valley Water Board, which may subject them to higher costs.

As a practical matter, many farmers in that region already belong to a coalition because of the specific geographic conditions that exist.  Prior to the new requirements, farmers were already being regulated if their discharge was likely to end up in surface waters, such as creeks and rivers.  The new requirements expand the program to include groundwater.

Tulare Lake Basin

It is an entirely different story for the Tulare Lake Basin.  Though the Central Valley Water Board has given lip service to the idea that the specifics of each of the eight regions will be taken into account as those waste discharge requirements are made for each area, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

In its own publicly released timeline, the Central Valley board says it will develop specific requirements for each district over the next year.  However in each case it has given a fairly short window for the development of those requirements.

Delihant said it took four years to develop the requirements for the Eastern San Joaquin Valley.  “It appears as if they are using the first set of requirements as a starting point.  We’ve seen what they proposed for the Tulare Lake Basin and it looks pretty much the same.”

The WG executive said that has many Kern County growers are quite concerned as they operate under a much different set of conditions.  “Many of these farmers have never been in coalitions or have had to worry about waste discharge,” she said.  “They farm in a very different landscape.  For some of these guys the ground water aquifer is 600 to 1000 feet below the surface.”

She said growers believe waste discharge from their farms have no chance of impacting either surface or ground water yet it appears as if they will have to join a coalition and pay a per acre charge as yet to be determined or apply for an individual permit.  These farmers are hoping to be exempted from these regulations but at first glance, it doesn’t appear as if that will be the case.

“I am telling growers they need to get involved in the process,” Delihant said.  “They need to go to the hearings and meetings of the water board and go to the meeting of the coalitions in their area.  In addition, they need to talk to water board members directly.”

That is a new wrinkle in this battle that growers and their industry representatives now have at their disposal.  Under old state rules, growers were not allowed to talk to these board members outside of the official meeting.  That is no longer the case.

Delihant said it is also important for growers in all of the other districts to keep close tabs on these regulations as they are being developed.  It is much easier to become part of the process and have your concerns addressed before the regulations are written than to fight them once they become entrenched.

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