Irrigated-lands proposal would bring big changes

Issue Date: February 17, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Changes to the state's agricultural waste discharge requirements are being proposed for the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed. If adopted, the State Water Resources Control Board said the proposal would have significant implications for irrigated agriculture statewide.

Proposed changes to the current Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, which was adopted in 2012, would affect farmers' efforts to work within the ILRP framework, said Danny Merkley, water resources director for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The nearly 4,000 growers enrolled in coalitions in the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed would be directly affected by the board's proposed order, Merkley said. The changes would also give direction to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and the other regional water boards to update their ILRPs to reflect the changes, setting a precedent and affecting farmers statewide.

Merkley said a fact sheet developed by the board to summarize and answer questions about the 62-page proposed order "falls short of saying the water board would not use the information it gathers to take enforcement actions against farmers and ranchers over water discharges from their land.

"The ILRP successes over the last dozen years have come from cooperation and collaboration, which does not come easily," Merkley said. "Enforcement actions against good-faith, cooperative efforts threaten the program."

The board announced a public comment period on the proposed changes last week, and a public workshop is tentatively set for mid-March. Merkley said CFBF and county Farm Bureau representatives will attend the workshop, as well as provide written comment.

The board said agriculture poses a complex challenge to water quality, noting many impacts are "due to historic rather than existing agricultural practices." The board said those impacts include toxicity in surface water that threaten aquatic species and salts in groundwater that adversely affect the quality of groundwater for irrigation, municipal supplies and other uses.

The newly proposed revisions to the ILRP came in response to petitions filed with the state water board and go beyond recommendations from the statutorily required Nitrogen Tracking Task Force and Agricultural Expert Panel. Merkley represented CFBF on the task force.

In 2011, the state water board certified an environmental impact report for a long-term ILRP to address both surface water and groundwater quality protection. It issued several watershed- or commodity-specific general waste discharge requirement orders.

The Eastern San Joaquin Agricultural General Waste Discharge Requirements represented the first permit issued and has been in effect since 2012. The region's coalition of farmers includes watersheds east of the San Joaquin River, roughly between Fresno and Modesto, encompassing about 714,000 acres of irrigated land.

"If the proposed changes are made to the general order, it will be tough on growers, with little benefit to water quality," said Wayne Zipser, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau executive director. "As it is, we're answering questions every day from growers about the current ILRP regulatory requirements."

The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, along with county Farm Bureaus in Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tuolumne, support the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. They're joined by commodity groups, water districts, resource conservation districts, agricultural commissioners and governmental entities.

"We are still reviewing the proposed changes, but what we find is concerning," Zipser said. "We'll definitely be sharing our assessment of the proposal with the state water board in coming weeks."

Although the proposed order upholds many of the provisions in the Central Valley water board's waste discharge requirements—such as using a structure based on coalitions of farm interests working together to comply with the requirements and using management practices to reach compliance—the board said the new proposal adds several significant revisions.

The proposed order calls for:

  • All growers enrolled in the coalition to be required to participate in outreach events, update their farm evaluation annually, have certified Nitrogen Management Plans, and submit NMP summary reports to the coalition. Previously, this was only required for growers in high vulnerability areas.
  • Expanding the farm evaluation checklist to include additional questions about notifications from the coalition to growers having higher-than-average nitrogen application values and to those in a surface or groundwater management area.
  • Adding information identifying methods of irrigation, for example surface, sprinkler and drip, as part of the NMP and renaming it the Irrigation and Nitrogen Management Plan. The proposed order would continue to require reporting of the amount of nitrogen applied and removed on a field-by-field basis, but would revise the specific types of measurements that would be reported.
  • Requiring the coalition to submit grower-specific, field-by-field data on nitrogen use to the Central Valley water board. The state Nitrogen Task Force has recommended only an aggregation of the data should be submitted.
  • Requiring each farm to monitor its drinking water wells.

Merkley noted the proposed changes to the ILRP call for calculating the amount of nitrogen removed from the field by reporting farmers' crop yields.

"The information needed to calculate nitrogen removed is not currently available for many crops," he said. "Therefore, until more research is done, nitrogen removed would not initially be required to be reported. Instead, growers would report their crop yield to estimate nitrogen removed."

The watershed coalition would analyze the farm evaluation data and INMP summary reports and work with growers who may need improved nitrogen management and irrigation efficiency practices.

The coalition would be required to electronically submit all individual data and data analyses to the Central Valley water board. Initially, the coalition would submit the individual data for crop years 2016 through 2018 to the regional board in May 2019, then annually after that.

Information on the comment period and public workshop can be found online at

(Kate Campbell 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.