Speakers criticize possible changes in water rules

Issue Date: March 9, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Proposed changes to California agricultural water quality regulations could prove counterproductive, according to speakers who discussed the proposal with the state Board of Food and Agriculture.

The board heard presentations on the topic last week, in the wake of changes proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board affecting the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition's general waste discharge requirements. Experts say the action could have significant statewide impacts on the coalition approach now used to improve water quality under the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

Danny Merkley, water resources director for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the board considerable progress has been made under the current program.

"Revising the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition program would direct other regional water boards to update their programs to be consistent with the proposed order," he said. "That would have a statewide impact on irrigated agriculture."

Of particular concern is a proposed requirement that the watershed coalition submit grower-specific, field-by-field data on nitrogen use, farm evaluation data, and Irrigation and Nitrogen Management Plans to the Central Valley regional water board, Merkley said. A state Nitrogen Task Force has recommended only an aggregation of the data be submitted.

"We don't believe submitting more data from individual farmers will accomplish anything positive," Merkley said.

The proposed order also calls for:

  • Requiring all growers enrolled in the coalition to participate in outreach events, update their farm evaluations annually, have certified Nitrogen Management Plans and submit NMP summary reports to the coalition. To date, this has only been required for growers in high vulnerability areas.
  • 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 each farm to monitor its drinking water wells.
  • Requiring the coalition to submit individual grower crop yield data to the Central Valley regional water board.

Parry Klassen, executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, told the board the water quality program has demonstrated "tremendous success." He said the coalition, founded in 2004, covers about 700,000 irrigated acres, and that incidents of runoff into waterways are very rare.

"That shows growers are willing to change practices and adjust their activities based on reliable information," Klassen said.

Since 2012, the coalition has been developing a nitrogen management template with other agricultural coalitions, intended to improve nutrient management further. He said the coalition sent the template to members in high-vulnerability areas and last week had requested those growers to submit their annual nitrogen-use reports.

"We will compile the information on a township basis to summarize crops, harvested amounts and calculate the nitrogen removed," he said. "I can't emphasize enough how difficult collecting, calculating and summarizing that much data will be for all irrigated lands."

Presenters told the board they're concerned the state water board will not be able to accumulate, interpret and inform grower decisions on such a large amount of technical data.

Abby Taylor-Silva of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, which represents 350 member companies on the Central Coast, said the proposed changes to the irrigated-lands program don't credit farmers for things they're already doing. For example, she cited building stormwater, sediment and retention basins to control and capture field runoff, as well as diverting runoff to land planted to cover crops.

"There are solutions being explored and experiments being conducted that can inform agriculture as a whole," she said. "I'm afraid growers will lose incentive to continue this work because of the cost of research, the amount of data they may be requested to generate and privacy concerns."

The newly proposed revisions to the ILRP came in response to petitions from fishery and environmental-justice groups. Representatives of environmental groups told the board they are particularly interested in obtaining grower-specific information.

The state water board has announced a public comment period on the proposed changes through the latter half of May; a public workshop is tentatively set for early May in Sacramento to take oral comments on the proposed order. Merkley said CFBF would attend the workshop as well as provide written comment.

Additional information can be found at www.swrcb.ca.gov/public_notices/petitions/water_quality/a2239_sanjoaquin_ag.shtml.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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