California's water quality: Farmers take active role in protecting environment

Issue Date: June 25, 2008
Ching Lee

Stanislaus County farmer Tom Maring checked the irrigation water trickling down the rows of his tomato field and looked satisfied with its clarity. He noted that much of the sediment had settled out, which means the water won't be carrying with it the impurities that might have become attached to the soil particles.

His goal is to have that water leaving his fields as clean as it was coming onto his farm, a task that many California farmers now are doing to effectively deal with the stringent water quality regulations aimed at reducing pollution in the state's waterways.

Stanislaus County farmer Tom Maring poses in his Patterson tomato field, which sits on a steep slope and must be furrow irrigated.

For farmers such as Maring, that task began many years ago, way before it became a regulatory requirement for farmers to monitor, test and manage their agricultural runoff. Maring said he did it to conserve resources and maximize his input. Water is so expensive, he noted, that he wants to ensure as much of it goes to his crops and not run off his property.

"It's just become even more important to do a good job because the drains are so heavily scrutinized now," said Maring, who farms mostly processing tomatoes and cantaloupe, but also almonds, cherries, beans and spinach.

Because his Patterson farm sits on a steep slope between the coastal foothills and the San Joaquin River, his crops are mostly furrow irrigated. The drop in elevation creates a challenge because irrigation water flows downhill, picking up soil and hauling it into the San Joaquin River. His goal is to be sure that excess water draining from his fields doesn't carry farm waste such as agricultural chemicals, fertilizers and sediment.

"It's very difficult to get good irrigation efficiency unless you drain water, otherwise the top of the field would be real wet and the bottom would be real dry," he said. "That's our continuous focus - to try to save water and have good-quality water leave our fields."

To manage that water, he developed a recirculation system that catches the excess water from his fields and other farms in the area into a settling pond. That water is then pumped back up to the top of the field, blended with fresh, new water and reapplied to his crops.

"So we save water and we eliminate draining from our farm," he said.

Tougher rules for farms
Farmers have been using best management practices for years to reduce farm runoff and conserve water. This is a primary reason that for decades farms have been exempt from the state's water quality laws, which require businesses and municipalities to apply for water runoff permits and submit plans to reduce pollution.

However, in 1999, after a successful lawsuit by environmentalists, the state passed Senate Bill 390, which required the state's nine regional water boards to review the effectiveness of the existing waivers and renew them or replace them with waste discharge requirements. Waivers not renewed automatically expired January 2003. To comply with SB 390, the regional water boards had to adopt revised waivers.

"Each regional board that adopts one adopts it with different nuances depending on the key water quality issues in their area," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources.

In July 2003, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, the largest of the state's regional water boards, adopted the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, which imposed strict new rules on farmers and ranchers to monitor and test for water quality in nearby waterways, report findings to the regional board and implement steps to reduce discharges identified to have come from farms.

Other regional boards followed suit and adopted similar conditional waiver programs for agricultural discharges. They include the Central Coast region, which adopted a waiver program that requires all irrigators, not just those who discharge into groundwater and surface water, to be a part of the program; the Los Angeles region, which covers watersheds in Los Angeles and Ventura counties; the San Diego region; and the Lahontan region, which adopted a conditional waiver program for irrigated and non-irrigated grazing land.

"Although many have called this an agricultural waiver program, in fact, it's far from a waiver," said Merkley. "Because of the conditions for compliance, it is instead a tightly controlled regulatory program with exacting conditions."

The Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality Control Board, which covers Imperial and Coachella valleys, has not adopted an irrigated lands waiver. Instead, it has implemented a conditional prohibition to address their sediment TMDL, or total maximum daily load, which is the maximum amount of any pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet state water quality standards.

The other three regions, which include the North Coast, San Francisco Bay and Santa Ana, have no immediate plans to adopt agricultural waivers but may do so in the future to implement TMDLs.

Under the new rules of the irrigated lands waiver, farmers and ranchers who discharge irrigation water or stormwater to off-site surface water bodies must consider whether they are required to be covered under the water board's Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. If so, they can join a watershed coalition or go it alone by filing with their regional board as an individual farm.

Tackling water quality problems
Due to the enormous costs of the monitoring program - estimated at $10,000 to $18,000 to start and at least $2,000 per year thereafter - many farmers chose to share the burden with others by joining coalitions. Many county Farm Bureaus have worked with members to form their own coalitions in various regions of the state. Each coalition has been approved by the regional board, which provides continuous oversight and direction.

But even as a coalition, monitoring and testing the state's myriad waterways is an expensive undertaking. Once a coalition is formed, there are also administrative, operational and other related costs to be covered. Most groups assess an annual per-acre rate of anywhere from 75 cents to $3. Some have flat fees, while others have a base rate, plus a per-acre charge.

"Our costs have gone up proportionate to the increased amount of sampling we've had to do," said Parry Klassen, a Fresno County farmer and board chairman of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, which represents some 640,000 irrigated acres of the region's 1.1 million irrigated acres.

The group currently monitors 22 waterways and spends $40,000 a year on each site for such things as sampling, testing and reporting six times a year during the irrigation season and twice in the winter.

Wayne Zipser, executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and co-chairman of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, said that through the efforts of the coalition, growers are becoming more aware of how their agricultural runoff is affecting the state's waterways. Now, the task is to show the regional board that there have been improvements made in those waterways and that the coalitions are working.

When there is the occasional problem, growers quickly respond to resolve it, Zipser said.

"Growers have been cooperative knowing that not succeeding in this is going to be a real detriment to agriculture," he said. "Our ongoing success in this area allows us to continue to stay in the coalition process and not go to individual waste discharge permits. I think we're headed in the right direction."

Most farmers already follow best management practices, but there are also infrastructure changes to the farm that could improve water quality but require considerable time and capital to implement, and those changes are not going to happen overnight, he said.

"I believe we are showing the progress necessary to ensure that farmers have the tools that we need to be able to farm," he said. "We've done pretty well. I think everyone has become more and more aware every day that we've got to make sure we're doing our part so that we don't get a black mark on us."

Agriculture not always the problem
Not all groups feel the process is working for them. In El Dorado County, much of which falls under the jurisdiction of the Central Valley regional board and where there are about 4,000 acres of irrigated agriculture, many feel that the regional board's one-size-fits-all approach unfairly penalizes them for water quality problems that are more urban than agriculture.

"Up here, we apply very few chemicals," said Valerie Zentner, executive director of the El Dorado County Farm Bureau, which has formed the El Dorado County Agricultural Watershed Group. "We don't do flood irrigation. We're just really not a threat at all to the water quality. So it could be very devastating financially to our growers if the regional board continues to want the monitoring at the level that they've had in the past."

She noted that toxicity tests have shown hits on so-called legacy pollutants, which are those that have been banned or restricted for several years but remain at detectable levels in sediment and tissue samples. There is also a mix of urban, suburban and agricultural uses in the watersheds the group is charged with monitoring, she added, "so we feel that some of the issues that we've found really are not our problem."

One such issue is the occasional detection of E. coli in the waterways, she said. Since the county has no dairies or feedlots and the detections were found in waters where there are no farms spreading manure on their crops, the contamination could come from wildlife, leaky septic tanks, human activity or other sources. And while agriculture may not be at fault for the E. coli, Zentner said the regional board does not let the coalition "off the hook" on testing for the bacteria.

The group is hoping to convince the regional board to grant a low-threat waiver for growers in the county when the board considers a new monitoring program next year that could allow more flexibility on what and how often a coalition needs to monitor.

Some coalitions have taken a more targeted approach to their monitoring process. Chuck March, executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau, which formed the Lake County Agricultural Lands Subwatershed Group, said the coalition did surveys with growers to identify specific sites to be placed in the monitoring program.

"We don't have any real agricultural drains," he said. "The tributaries dry up during the summer so we've operated with a modified monitoring plan because we don't have runoff in the summer during the irrigation season."

And like growers in El Dorado County, March said members of the Lake County watershed group also are frustrated with having to bear the responsibility for monitoring water bodies where agriculture is not the only contributing impact.

"Our land use is really checkerboard patterns with a lot of rural residential lands intertwined within our agricultural lands, but we're the only group doing any type of water quality monitoring on any of the tributaries in the Clear Lake basin," he said.

East region targets grazing
In the Lahontan region, which covers the eastern Sierra stretching from the state border to the north and San Bernardino to the south, the conditional waiver program is focused on grazing land and geographically limited to the Bridgeport basin, located in northern Mono County and listed under the federal Clean Water Act as impaired due to nutrients and sediment.

Cattle raising is the principal agricultural activity in this region, and Bridgeport Valley has one of the state's highest concentrations of livestock during the summer grazing months. Therefore, its ag waiver program is primarily monitoring for fecal coli form, and ranchers' management practices are designed to eliminate those pathogens.

"That was a pretty reasonable way to do things because we don't have a lot of water quality problems in that basin and that would also allow them to target the constituent of concern and they could then design the waiver around that," said William Thomas, a rancher in the Bridgeport Valley.

Unlike the controversial Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program in the Central Valley, Thomas said there were no big surprises with what came down in the Lahontan region because ranchers had already been working with the regional board on a monitoring plan years before there was any talk of an ag waiver.

Under Lahontan's conditional waiver, ranchers sign up individually with the regional board, but they monitor and report collectively as a coalition. They monitor 11 sites in Bridgeport Valley beginning early in the spring, before the start of summer cattle grazing season, and continue through the summer and fall. About half the sites are located on streams and tributaries that contribute flow to the irrigated pasture complex. The others are located below cattle grazing land, where ranchers monitor the water that's draining out of those grazed areas.

By monitoring water bodies above and below where cattle graze, ranchers hope to understand how much livestock activity is contributing to the increased fecal coli form levels in those watersheds. The results show that cattle are not the only contribution of fecal coli form—as the region accommodates quite a bit of recreation, as well as ranchettes and residential subdivisions, which suggest human and wildlife contributions, said Thomas.

"The question now is what kind of management can we implement to mitigate the problem," said Ken Tate, a University of California rangeland watershed specialist who has been advising ranchers on data interpretation and quality control of their monitoring program.

Thomas said ranchers have already adopted practices to improve water quality such as installing riparian fencing along the waterways and limiting grazing in those riparian pastures. Other practices Tate suggested include rotational grazing to avoid having high concentrations of cattle lingering near a waterway; using filter strips or wetlands to filter the water; improving irrigation practices so they don't generate as much runoff; and making sure that cattle are out of the field before they irrigate.

"All these things can work," Tate said. "It's just a matter of which ones can work on which ranch and what people can do."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.