Board’s proposed water plan brings statewide impact

Issue Date: October 18, 2017
By Christine Souza

In a proposal that would set precedents for other water-quality programs in California, the State Water Resources Control Board has released a revised draft order for the East San Joaquin River watershed that farmers and their representatives find problematic. Farm groups said the proposal discounts progress farmers have made in protecting water quality and would add layers of reporting that would complicate their efforts at additional environmental protection.

"Farmers and ranchers want to do the right thing to assure water quality," California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Kari Fisher said. "After all, farmers live in rural areas and depend on safe water supplies for themselves and their families. However, burdensome regulations and red tape won't necessarily lead to improved water quality. That will simply make it more complicated for farmers to do their part."

Released by the state water board staff last week and due for final adoption by the board early next year, the updated draft order would revise waste discharge requirements for the East San Joaquin River Watershed issued in 2012 by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The new proposal modifies an earlier draft issued in early 2016.

Among its provisions, the revised draft would:

  • Revise the way nitrogen application is recorded, analyzed and reported.
  • Require farmers, starting in 2019, to report nitrogen application data and management practices to the regional water board on a field-by-field basis, which the state board said would allow analysis of whether the regulatory program is effective in protecting water quality. To provide a level of anonymity, field-level data would be reported without the farmer's name or field location.
  • Require farmers to monitor and report nitrate levels in on-farm drinking water wells, starting in 2019, if they are not already required to do so.
  • Impose the same nitrogen-reporting requirements in areas considered low vulnerability for impacts to groundwater as for areas considered high vulnerability, effective in 2020, with some exceptions.

Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Executive Director Wayne Zipser noted the state board has acknowledged that water quality impacts from agriculture have resulted mainly from historic, rather than existing, practices.

"They admit that existing practices are working better," Zipser said.

He said farmers have recently started reporting nitrogen use in highly vulnerable areas and have already seen "major improvements in surface water quality in the East San Joaquin Coalition areas, because growers implemented practices that are improving surface water quality." Zipser said he's uncertain the revisions in the draft order would prove successful.

"We've seen remarkable differences there. I just don't feel we've given this enough time," he said.

Zipser said the recommended change by board staff to report nitrogen application data and management practices on a field-by-field basis would increase costs.

"Right now, we are doing this on a management-unit basis. If you have 10 parcels of land that you farm the same, you can lump those into one unit. It makes it easier to report and is faster and simpler," he said.

The proposed field-by-field reporting brings "some real concerns," he said, including the board's ability to keep information private.

The board said its revised draft order intends to maintain a layer of privacy protection for farmers by allowing individual data sets to be submitted with a unique, anonymous identifier. But CFBF attorney Fisher said the order would allow the state board to require disclosure of name and location data in the future, and the regional board could require names and locations at any time.

Almost all the components of the revised draft order would be considered "precedential," Fisher said, "which means they impact every single irrigated lands program in all of the regions in the state."

For that reason, farmers and organizations outside the East San Joaquin River area have been watching the process closely.

Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said the revised draft order would mean "more costs to landowners and growers for increased monitoring, reporting, coalitions and research into farming practices."

For growers along the Central Coast, he said, obtaining a three-year average for nitrogen applied/removed ratio for any field or farm, as the draft order would require, would be problematic due to crop rotations.

"For instance, strawberries may be on a field for 14-16 months, followed by lettuce for a year, then broccoli for a year," Groot said. "This will not provide solid data to draw conclusions on proper nitrogen levels for field crops. Also, with so many soil types and climate zones, this will complicate any set of data that is collected."

The state board proposal would also require areas with irrigated-lands water-quality programs to create farmer coalitions within five years. The coalitions can act as intermediaries between farmers and the regional board.

But for Central Coast growers, Groot said, creation of coalitions to manage this type of new order would be difficult "due to the number of crops and varying climate zones we have here."

"To be viable as a coalition, there must be a broad representation of membership for financial stability; there may not be the same opportunity for a coalition here as in the Eastern San Joaquin order due to the uniqueness of crops and climate," he said.

Given the broad statewide impact of the proposal, Fisher urges farmers and ranchers to attend an upcoming public workshop and submit written comments.

The workshop has been scheduled for Dec. 6 at the Cal/EPA building, 1001 I St., Sacramento. The deadline for written comments on the proposed order is Dec. 15 at 12 noon.

The state water board is expected to consider adoption of the proposed order at its Jan. 23, 2018, meeting.

For more information on the proposed order, see

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of 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.