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State water board hears concerns about regulation

Issue Date: December 13, 2017
By Ching Lee

With the diverse mix of crops grown in the state and the complex nature of different farming systems, California farmers and their advocates told the State Water Resources Control Board that its one-size-fits-all approach to regulating water quality remains burdensome, expensive and infeasible for many farmers.

They shared their concerns during a public workshop on a proposal to revise waste discharge requirements for the East San Joaquin River watershed that would have statewide impact on all irrigated lands regulatory programs. The meeting, held last week in Sacramento, provided a preview of where different stakeholders stand on the proposed order, with written comments due Dec. 22.

The proposal, which modifies an earlier draft issued in 2016, is considered precedential in that it not only affects members of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in the Central Valley, but all irrigated lands regulatory programs in the state, which will need to be consistent with the proposed order.

Speakers from the California Farm Bureau Federation and others representing agriculture described the proposed requirements as too complicated and costly, by requiring growers to increase monitoring, reporting and research on their farming practices. On the other side, environmental justice groups said the proposed order does not go far enough and lacks enforceable timelines to improve water quality.

Kari Fisher, CFBF senior counsel, said one improvement in the current draft order, compared to last year's proposal, is that it would allow monitoring coalitions to report unidentified field-level data rather than reporting data of specific growers or locations, although regional boards still maintain the authority to obtain such information. The 2016 draft would have required reporting of all farmers' field-level data, identifiable by location.

The proposal requires farmers, starting in 2019, to report nitrogen application data and management practices on a field-by-field basis. Monitoring coalitions would then use this information to verify that growers are applying nitrogen efficiently and not leaching excess nitrogen into groundwater.

To illustrate the complex cropping systems on the Central Coast, Monterey County farmer David Costa used a graphic to show the multiple crops and different planting rotations that occur on the same plot of land during a three-year period. Trying to calculate a three-year average for nitrogen applied to a field over nitrogen removed from a field through crop uptake—known as the A/R ratio—will be impossible for any one crop on the same field, he said.

Anthony Duttle, an agronomist at Tanimura & Antle, said vegetable crops are not harvested like permanent crops such as almonds or field crops such as rice and corn, which are harvested in their entirety. On some lettuce varieties, for example, the whole head may be harvested while on others, just the heart. The unharvested portions of the crop leave residual nitrogen in the soil, making it "an impossible task" to determine a multi-year A/R ratio, he said.

Costa and Duttle pointed out that information on the amount of nitrogen removed for the hundreds of crops and varieties that farmers grow in the state simply is not available and will take time to figure out, which will be costly for farmers who must foot the bill for the research.

Advocates for small organic farmers and minority farmers who grow nontraditional crops such as Asian vegetables voiced similar concerns.

Ruth Dahlquish-Willard, a University of California Cooperative Extension small farms advisor for Fresno and Tulare counties, said the reporting requirements are particularly burdensome for the farmers she works with, because of language barriers and the complexities of their farms.

"I think simplified reporting would help," she told the board.

Yolo County walnut farmer Nancy Lea told the board farmers "want to farm within the law," but that she has concerns about those who are non-native English speakers, some of whom have little to no computer skills or Internet access, and those of an older generation who "may be simply overwhelmed by the crush of ongoing requirements."

"Increasing the burden and detail of the watershed requirements will make it even more difficult for these valuable members of our farming community to stay within the law," she said.

Noting that only 3 percent of the San Diego County water supply comes from groundwater, Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and administrator of the San Diego Regional Irrigated Lands Group, said clarity is needed in the proposed order for when monitoring and reporting of nitrate levels in on-farm drinking water wells would not apply.

"Our greatest fear is an unnecessary application of this order in an area with minimal groundwater and no known concern for drinking water protection," Larson told the board. "If seen by growers as punitive, it would lead to erosion of confidence in the state and regional boards, and a reduced level of participation in the irrigated lands program."

Other speakers highlighted the progress farmers have made in protecting water quality and urged the board to recognize these efforts by not requiring them to duplicate the work they've already done.

Rice, for example, has been regulated for 30 years under surface-water programs and has demonstrated minimal impacts to groundwater, said Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission. The revised order, he said, should not apply to the crop, which has its own, commodity-specific waste discharge requirements.

Growers who farm in the delta also have a unique situation, said Mike Wackman, executive director of the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition. The region's canals and rivers that force water through the soils do not let nitrogen get into the ground.

"We spend a lot of money and a lot of expertise time proving this fact," he said, noting that the proposed order addresses this only in a footnote.

He highlighted the effectiveness of the current surface-water program in the Central Valley. Any changes to this program, he said, would greatly affect the area because of the amount of surface water in the delta.

It would also affect all other irrigated-lands programs statewide, and could potentially alter other programs specific to certain agricultural sectors such as wineries, food processing and forestry, Fisher added.

For information on how to comment on the draft, see

(Ching Lee 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.

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