The California Water Code has been interpreted to presume that, if you irrigate crops and any irrigation or storm water leaves your land, the water could contain waste constituents that may affect downstream surface water quality.
When any surface water leaving your property contains farm waste, you are a “discharger” subject to regulation. The same is true for groundwater. Discharges to groundwater include nutrient movement past the root zone, back flow through irrigation wells of pesticides or fertilizers, and/or farm waste draining into abandoned wells. No matter how long it takes to reach the aquifer, 5, 20, 50,100 years — you are considered having the “potential” to discharge waste to groundwater.
Regional water quality control boards are somewhat autonomous and since each region’s hydrology, geology, cropping patterns and weather are very different, so are the rules. With the focus on nitrate contamination of drinking water, many regional boards are looking at ways to regulate agriculture through Waivers, General Orders (GO) or adopting Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for nitrate and other constituents of concern. To comply with these orders, reports must be completed by the regulated community. These reports are not your run-of-the-mill research projects we all had to do in college. They consist of detailed management plans spelling out known and potential sources of water quality problems and ways to begin addressing them. Monitoring and reporting the results, assessing best management practices (BMPs) that are or will be used, nutrient and pesticide use…the list goes on and on and so do the costs as hydrologists, agronomists, consulting firms and labs are needed to perform the work and complete the reports.
In response to many of these issues, water quality coalitions have been formed in agricultural regions throughout the state as they are viewed by many to be the most economical way to comply with a Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements (WDR) or General Waste Discharge Requirements (GWDR). The coalitions' goal is to represent farmers with irrigated cropland within a regional watershed so they do not need to file individual reports of Waste Discharge Requirements with the regional water quality control boards or have their personal farming operation open to the public. Banding together and showing up in force at hearings and meetings with solutions show bureaucrats that agriculture is united and willing to work collaboratively toward solutions.
In the southern portion of California, where agricultural water quality related issues are not as contentious as in the Central Valley or on the Central Coast, agriculture decided to form groups like The Ventura County Agriculture Irrigated Lands Group, The Nursery Growers Association Irrigated Lands Group, Coachella Technical Advisory Committee and the Western Riverside County Ag Coalition. In other cases, farmers banded together to enlist the local water district to lead the discussions with regional boards.
Since the release of the UC Davis Nitrate Report and the State Water Resources Control Board’s recommendations to the Legislature on nitrates, many eyes in Sacramento have increased their intensity on the Central Valley and the Central Coast. Albeit lacking in sound and complete science, the pressure has intensified on these two regions and how agriculture is regulated. More and more information is wanted even though there is no clear understanding on how the information will be used. Regardless, farmers need to continue proactively addressing drinking water issues from domestic wells on land that they own and/or operate.
Agriculture in the Central Valley region is becoming the poster child for successful coalitions achieving improved surface water quality. But that success comes with many scars as farmers chafe at having to detail farming practices or explain what, how and why in addition to paying the fees associated with a coalition. Yet, through all the regional board meetings, grower meetings, hundreds of site visits from coalition leaders, and millions spent on monitoring, this region has shown steady improvement over the past four years. This program may very well be the model for the rest of the state. They are now poised to tackle groundwater in much the same way.
The Central Coast Regional Board has not been so welcoming to the coalition approach, although growers have spent a couple hundred thousand dollars developing proposals for consideration. Water quality exceedences in close proximity to farming operations are treated much like a point source discharge instead of a non-point source discharge. Agriculture has made huge strides over the past five to 10 years in managing its irrigation and nutrient inputs. These growers need to be afforded the same considerations as those elsewhere in the state so they can do what they are great at — growing sustainable, healthy, profitable, affordable produce for the world to eat.
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