Updated: Farm groups seek flexibility in water quality program

Issue Date: May 11, 2016
By Steve Adler

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include an extended deadline for written comments.)

Agricultural representatives urged state water-quality regulators to take a flexible, regional approach to the California Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, as the State Water Resources Control Board considers a precedent-setting proposal to make sweeping changes in the program. The proposal formed the subject of a 10-hour workshop last week in Sacramento.

The state water board is considering revisions to the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition General Waste Discharge Requirements, but the board has said the proposed order will set a precedent that would be applied statewide. Key elements of the proposal include:

  • Creation of uniform annual reporting requirements for all members of a water quality coalition; previously, only high-vulnerability operations had such regulatory requirements.
  • Operations would be separated into categories by size, with phased-in deadlines.
  • All farmers would have to participate in outreach events, update farm evaluations annually, have certified Nitrogen Management Plans and submit NMP summary reports to the coalition. Previously, these requirements pertained only to growers in high-vulnerability areas.
  • The farm evaluation checklist of management practices would be expanded.
  • Information identifying farmers' method of irrigation—such as surface, sprinkler or drip—would be added as part of the NMP, which would be renamed the Irrigation and Nitrogen Management Plan.
  • Growers would have to report nitrogen application data, the ratio of nitrogen applied to the field to nitrogen removed from the field.
  • A coalition would now be required to provide raw nitrogen application data and farm management practice implementation data submitted by each grower to the regional water board, making this data accessible to the public.
  • Each farm would be required to monitor all drinking water wells, including landowner or tenant wells that the farmer may not have authority to access.

According to Kari Fisher, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel, the proposed order goes beyond nitrogen management recommendations from the statutorily mandated Nitrogen Tracking Task Force and Agricultural Expert Panel, and incorporates the state water board's own judgment.

"Given its precedential nature, the proposed order's requirements will impact farmers not only in the Central Valley, but throughout the state," Fisher said.

Because of that, agricultural representatives around the state traveled to Sacramento to comment at the workshop.

Sandy Elles, executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, urged the board to recognize that farming conditions differ throughout the state.

"We are here to implore you to reconsider the current alternative and craft a revised order that achieves the goal of protecting water quality in areas with irrigated ag lands using a common-sense approach and with recognition of the diverse regional watershed conditions throughout the state," Elles told the board. "I want to stress again the importance of the regional and geographic diversity throughout the state. One size does not fit all."

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, speaking on behalf of the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group, made the same point, saying regulations for irrigated lands programs should be developed locally for local conditions.

"To get buy-in and compliance from farmers in the irrigated lands program, the regulations must be appropriate and defensible for the region and not be seen as punitive," he said, and encouraged the board not to make its decision on the East San Joaquin order apply to all regions of the state.

Jeff Merwin, president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, said he waited nine and a half hours for his opportunity to address the board.

"The more I sat there, the more I realized that the entire thing is driven by lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits," Merwin said. "What the environmental community wants is not reasonable. They want site-specific testing and data. The reality is that the system is working and there is strong evidence to show that it is working."

Mike Wackman, a fifth-generation farmer in Elk Grove and executive director of the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition, said research and education for farmers is already underway and the results are easily seen.

"The idea that it hasn't been moving forward is not so," Wackman said. "We live on the land, we drink the water. We want to improve water quality. We want to take those limited resources and do the things that are necessary that truly impact water quality and truly make a difference, versus spending a lot of time collecting data that may help or may not help."

Jennifer Spaletta, attorney for the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition, urged all parties to work together to resolve their differences.

"I would like to see the environmental-justice community engage more with the coalitions and the regional boards about doing some targeted studies and understanding the results of those studies, because to simply assume that someone is continuing to contaminate groundwater is a scientifically unjustified leap," she said.

"We have seen significant improvement when the coalitions have worked their way upstream from areas with water quality problems," Spaletta said. "What we are asking the water board to do is give the coalitions the time to use their resources to actually do that, before we start pointing fingers and accusing people of contamination without scientific support."

The Sacramento workshop was the first of two scheduled sessions. An additional workshop will be held on May 17 at 9 a.m. at the Fresno Convention Center, 848 M St. in Fresno.

The deadline for written comments on the proposed order has been extended to June 1 at 12 noon. Electronic submissions may be sent to commentletters@waterboards.ca.gov with the subject line, "Comments to A-2239(a)-(c)." Comments sent via mail should be addressed to Ms. Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, P.O. Box 100, Sacramento, CA 95812-0100.

For more information on the proposed order, visit www.waterboards.ca.gov/public_notices/petitions/water_quality/a2239_sanjoaquin_ag.shtml.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

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