March 14, 2016

Farmers Could be Flooded with State Water Board Regulations

By Gail Delihant
Director, Western Growers California Government Affairs

Regulating farmers in California could morph to new heights if the current draft (Draft Order) of the State Water Resources Control Board’s (State Water Board) revisions to the Eastern San Joaquin Waste Discharge Requirements is adopted.  The State Water Board itself recognizes the breadth of this proposal in its explanation that a final adopted order will set a precedent that will be applied statewide.

The state has regulated irrigated lands since 1982.  Growers on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley have more onerous monitoring and reporting requirements compared to other regions in the state.  Monitoring and meeting receiving water limitations and the implementation of management plans that address known exceedances are a way of life for farmers within these two regions.  Both the Central Valley and Central Coast require growers to develop farm plans that minimize waste discharge to surface and groundwater.  In addition, they must document management practices, including nitrogen management plans, describing applications relative to crop need, and the measures being utilized to address sediment and erosion control.  The Central Valley’s seven million irrigated acres are managed by third-party coalitions.  The draft order supports third-party approaches to regulating agriculture so regional water boards can leverage limited regulatory staff thus allowing them to focus on problem areas or actors.

Much of the draft centers on the recommendations of the Agricultural Expert Panel that was convened to address 13 questions posed by the State Water Board in its effort to regulate agriculture.  It also appears the draft is trying to address the lawsuit filed by Monterey Coastkeeper, et al. protesting the Central Coast’s agricultural waiver, as well as clarifying the board’s antidegradation policy.

If this draft order is adopted, growers will face the following changes:

•   The Draft Order would eliminate the distinction between high vulnerability and low vulnerability areas, making groundwater protection requirements applicable to all areas within the watershed.  Instead, the Draft Order would propose categories based on operation size to accomplish phasing of the applicable requirements.  Because the Draft Order would remove the risk-based phasing approach, many requirements that were previously only applicable to high vulnerability areas would become applicable to all members, including the requirement to participate in outreach events and the need to update a Farm Evaluation annually.

•   The Draft Order includes a new template for the Farm Evaluation and proposes to require the Third Party to submit Farm Evaluation data to the regional board at the field level, and identify the field-specific data by location.

•   The Draft Order proposes a number of changes to the Nitrogen Management Plan requirements.  Citing recommendations from the Agricultural Expert Panel as its basis for certain requirements, the Draft Order opines that nitrogen management must coincide with irrigation management, would add several planning elements to this effect, would require additional irrigation-related information, and would rename the revised plan the “Irrigation and Nitrogen Management Plan” (INMP).  All members would be required to prepare a certified INMP and submit an INMP Summary Report to the Third Party.  This requirement varies significantly from the current requirement, which only requires certified nitrogen management plans for growers in high vulnerability areas.

•   The Draft Order would require a new methodology—called the multi-year A/R ratio—to track the effects of nitrogen management practices over time. The multi-year A/R ratio represents the ratio of nitrogen applied to the field to the nitrogen removed from the field.  The Draft Order would assign the Third Party the task of conducting research and testing to determine the appropriate coefficients for calculating nitrogen removed by crop, and prescribes a timeline for determining these values.  The member would then need to include the multi-year A/R ratio in its INMP Summary Report to the Third Party as well as the data supporting the calculation.  The Third Party, in turn, would then summarize the nitrogen application data at the field level and report that information to the regional board, identified by location, for entry into the GeoTracker database.  Additional follow-up actions would be required of growers found to be consistently over-applying nitrogen as indicated by a higher than average A/R ratio value for more than three years.

•   The Draft Order would implement provisions from State Board Order WQ 2013-0101, which is applicable to Central Coast growers, and would require members to monitor all drinking water supply wells on their property.  If monitoring results show that the groundwater exceeds the water quality objectives for nitrate (equivalent to the drinking water standard for nitrate), then the member or Third Party would be required to notify users of the exceedance.  The Third Party would be required to submit these monitoring results for drinking water supply wells to the regional board in the Annual Monitoring Report.  Further, the Draft Order encourages the regional board to use its authority to require replacement water where the groundwater exceeds the nitrate drinking water standard.  Due to the fact that well logs are now publicly available, the State Water Board noted its intention not to withhold information on the exact locations of drinking water supply wells.

A public workshop on the Draft Order will be held on either March 15 or 16.  Written comments on the Draft Order must be submitted by noon on April 8, 2016.  The State Water Board is encouraging comments on specific provisions and is requesting input on several reporting alternatives, including alternatives removing the location identification requirements.

Although the State Water Board has acknowledged agriculture’s significant role in the state’s economy and the millions of dollars that have been invested by the industry in management and business practices, the board still appears poised to appease the unreasonable demands of the environmental community and add yet another layer of unnecessary regulation.  WG staff will be working with other agricultural representatives to coordinate comments to this Draft Order. We will continue to stay engaged with the administration and regulators to advocate for reasonable regulations on behalf of farmers.

If you have any questions about this issue, please contact WG staff for more information.