Water quality: New fees add to costs of one successful effort


Issue Date: January 28, 2015
By Christine Souza

In counties throughout California, farmers and ranchers are working to improve the quality of water that leaves irrigated fields by using best management practices to reduce sediment, silt and other materials through regional Irrigated Lands Regulatory Programs. The managers of one successful program say a new order by a regional water board will raise the costs for farmers to participate.

Since 2000, the Imperial County Farm Bureau has taken a leadership role in creating and overseeing operation of the TMDL Voluntary Compliance Program; TMDL stands for the total maximum daily load of potential contaminants that must be achieved to meet water-quality standards. The San Diego County Farm Bureau provides members with a similar program, the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group, in order to comply with San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board regulations for agricultural and nursery operations.

Working with their regulatory agency—the Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality Control Board—Imperial County farmers have prevented more than 33,000 tons of silt from entering the New and Alamo rivers, and ultimately the Salton Sea.

"The Imperial Farm Bureau stepped in and we developed guidelines for the TMDL program. It has been the most successful TMDL program in the state; we've won awards and the target goals that were set, we blasted through them no problem," said Farm Bureau Executive Director Linsey Dale, who manages the program. "The reason it is so successful is that it is simple. It allows farmers to do what they needed to do. We told them, 'Do whatever works on your land, as long as you meet the goals.'"

With nearly 100 percent participation by Imperial County farmers, the program had operated, until recently, under a "conditional prohibition," which means there is no charge to growers and it does not expire. Participating growers develop best management practices for controlling pollutant runoff and prepare plans for their farms.

"When we started, within three years we had met the goal set by the regional board on one of the rivers and we had 99 percent signup; there were 450-plus farmers and almost all of them signed up for the program," said Al Kalin, on-farm consultant for the Imperial County Farm Bureau program.

Kalin, a farmer in Westmoreland, said giving farmers flexibility to meet the water standards "has worked exceptionally well, and some farmers have had some really novel ideas that nobody had even thought of before," because they know their fields better than anybody.

Soon, he said, the regional board was impressed with the farmers' results and wanted to analyze what management practices proved most effective.

"Every farm is different, every field grade is different and fields have different crops, so I invited the staff down to tour the area. I showed them what we were doing, why we were doing it, and basically educated them," Kalin said.

As a result of Imperial's success, the Palo Verde Irrigation District expressed interest in modeling a program after the one offered by the Imperial County Farm Bureau. In that process, Dale said, the regional board approved the plan, but it was not approved by the State Water Resources Control Board, which directed the regional board to adopt a conditional waiver instead of the existing conditional prohibition.

A conditional waiver must be renewed every five years and can require farmers to pay fees to fund the water boards' activities. The state board also ordered that those in the region that currently operate under the conditional prohibition change to a conditional waiver.

Two weeks ago, the regional board approved the conditional waiver and the Imperial County Farm Bureau has until Feb. 14 to submit a letter of intent to develop and implement a Coalition Group Compliance Program.

"We continue to meet the goals and we are being forced into a conditional waiver and again, nothing in the program is changing except that my guys are having to write a big, fat check at 75 cents per acre," Dale said. "A year ago it was 52 cents per acre, so that 75 cents per acre equates to approximately $355,000 that the State Water Resources Control Board is going to get."

Both the Imperial County Farm Bureau and the California Farm Bureau Federation opposed the state board action. Dale noted that, despite the additional payments to the state board, the local program would continue to conduct the majority of management practices.

"Unfortunately, the state has moved to a 100 percent, fee-based system in which fees are now required, even for the public benefit portion, and the state water board said without the fees, the regional board would be spending funds needed for other programs," CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said, "so the Imperial County Farm Bureau program, which has won the governor's environmental award, will now be forced to pay these fees."

Diversified grower Shelvie Crittendon of Brawley participates in Imperial's voluntary compliance program and has developed practices that improve water quality, such as planting wheat across fields to reduce sediment.

"I think the TMDL program is a good program; we need to watch what goes out of our fields and we've been trying to do a better job," Crittendon said. "One thing I am not happy with is now the board is going to be charging a fee, and I just think that is totally unfair."

Working cooperatively with the Colorado River Basin regional board, Imperial farmers found a way to protect water quality and achieve compliance in a non-punitive way. But this is not always the case, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, where farmers are meeting with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board as it develops standards for toxicity and sediment runoff from farms and urban areas.

Every regional board handles discharges from irrigated lands differently, Groot said.

"Ours has been rather strict in the way that they've approached this and has not really at this point taken into account the feedback from the agricultural community on the standards that they are establishing," Groot said. "Sediment is already partially controlled through our ag order, but this is going to be setting almost unreasonable standards."

Growers in the Central Coast region operate under a conditional waiver adopted in 2012. Given the five-year time period of a conditional waiver, the Central Coast regional board has already begun to consider the next version of regulation for discharges from irrigated lands.

CFBF Associate Counsel Kari Fisher said it would be wise for farmers in the region to become involved early in the process.

"Even though the Central Coast agricultural order does not expire until 2017, we encourage everyone to become actively involved in the development of the new regulations, given that they will impact a grower's day-to-day operations," she said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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