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Farms may face new water rules in Central Valley

Issue Date: April 13, 2011
By Kate Campbell

The way nearly 35,000 Central Valley farms manage water and nutrients from fields and ditches is about to change, but what those changes may entail was not resolved last week when the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board met in Rancho Cordova.

Farmers and ranchers from throughout the valley offered comments on the board's proposed changes to the Long-term Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, which controls runoff from more than 7 million irrigated acres. They were joined in addressing the board during an 11-hour meeting by agricultural group leaders and a large contingent from environmental organizations.

At stake is the future of a water quality program established in 2003, when the regional board adopted rules encouraging farmers to combine resources by forming coalitions to conduct water quality testing in their local watersheds, or to conduct testing individually. Through the coalitions, management plans were developed to improve water quality and to provide outreach and educational activities.

Now, the program is up for renewal and the regional board wants to expand the program by requiring farm coalitions to add monitoring and sampling of groundwater to the surface water quality improvement program.

"They hope to have orders ready in 12 months to 18 months, which is a very aggressive schedule," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director.

Working with leaders of agricultural coalitions, Farm Bureau has submitted what Merkley called "a detailed proposal to continue work by farmers and ranchers to protect and improve the quality of both surface water and groundwater" in the Central Valley.

"We believe the first steps to address groundwater quality should be using the extensive sampling data already available," Merkley said, citing monitoring programs under way by several state agencies. "It makes no sense to develop an expensive, new program to gather information that's already available."

The network of agricultural coalitions established under the current program has regulated discharges from irrigated agriculture to rivers and streams through an extensive system of water sampling. Farmers and ranchers have already collectively spent $31 million on testing and analysis.

Rough estimates now of the costs farmers would likely incur for the expanded program ranged from $478 million to $1.3 billion over a several-year period. Job losses and land fallowing under the various proposals within the framework could be significant, but those details are still a long way from being defined and understood.

In summing up the day-long proceedings, California Rice Commission President Tim Johnson said the board expressed support for the current coalition structure, but an expanded program that includes groundwater would need more staff work and stakeholder input before being adopted. Farmers at the meeting and board members each expressed concern about the effect of program costs on small- and medium-sized farms.

"We support the idea that the framework for the new, expanded program not be adopted now," said Bruce Houdesheldt, Northern California Water Association regulatory affairs director. "We have a lot of concerns about the framework in its current form."

Houdesheldt said analysis of Northern California water test results shows a pronounced downward trend in pesticide detections in waterways.

"We're at a crossroads—whether we'll continue to build on the successes of the watershed coalitions or use the (new) framework to shift to a very aggressive on-farm regulatory program," David Orth, Kings River Conservation District general manager, told the board last week, adding that the coalitions have demonstrated a record of success.

"We've monitored aggressively, made significant financial investments and created program efficiencies," he said. "We've focused on solutions to problems as they have been identified in the field."

He said the proposed new program, however, creates uncertainties about its direction and introduces unnecessary complexities.

"This is causing our coalitions to really examine where we are and where we are going," Orth said. "We encourage the board to direct staff to continue to work with us to build on the substance we already have to design a better program."

San Joaquin County farmer Mike Wackman addressed the board on behalf of the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Coalition.

"We're finding increasing acceptance of the program," Wackman told the board. "Growers are coming up to us and asking about testing results and whether the program has improved water quality. This interest and involvement in the program is what we've been working toward."

But he said farmers worry about "a waste of their resources and excessive paperwork," and that he fears the proposed program could lead to those problems.

"If you go to every farm to start sampling and reporting, whether there's an impact on water quality or not, and then require those farmers to submit a bunch of different documents online, what good is that information?" Wackman asked the board. "It's much more efficient to work with the coalitions to work with growers and identify those areas we need to work on to improve water quality."

Meanwhile, environmentalists urged the board to end the coalition system and impose direct, farm-by-farm regulation and enforcement. By the water board's own estimate, implementing such a program would require as many as 250 new board staff members.

The board voted last week to certify the program environmental impact report, an underlying document for future changes, but decided to extend discussion of the redesigned and expanded program until its June meeting. When finalized, the regulations and resulting order from the board would go fully into effect in 2014.

More information on the proposed changes to the discharge management program is 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.

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