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Expert panel gathers insight on water quality

Issue Date: May 14, 2014
By Kate Campbell

Following through on legislative requirements to address nitrates in groundwater, the State Water Resources Control Board has convened a panel of experts to provide findings and recommendations for protecting groundwater quality.

The panel has held several public meetings around the state to gather practical information from farmers, scientists, regulators and the public about groundwater quality, current water management practices, and approaches to tracking and reporting activities.

Charles Burt, professor emeritus and chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, serves as panel chairman. Panel members include a soil scientist, a hydrogeologist, an agronomist, crop advisors and farmers.

During a public meeting last week in Sacramento, Burt said the panel is focused on understanding what's being done and what can be done to improve nitrogen management. The panel will provide the state water board with a report and recommendations after concluding its information gathering.

"We appreciate the panel's efforts to gather information on the best possible approaches to managing nitrates and the water board's thoughtful approach to addressing legacy issues related to nitrates in groundwater," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director. "The unanswered question in these proceedings is how the information being gathered will be used and what kind of input the expert panel will have on final actions relating to nitrogen use on farms."

Merkley said the panel has been asking helpful questions of a variety of experts with practical agricultural experience—from farm irrigation managers to soil scientists and hydrologists.

A number of specialists making presentations to the panel said sweeping changes already have been made during the past several decades in the way fertilizers and irrigation water are applied to California crops.

Yields of almost all crops, including peppers, melons, stone fruits and almonds, are much higher today than in the early 1990s—more than double, in some cases—Hung Le, irrigation manager for Paramount Farms, told the panel during his presentation in San Luis Obispo last week.

Increased yield has been achieved with little to no change in the amount of applied nitrogen by implementing better management practices, Le said. Continued improvements can be made using well-designed and -maintained irrigation systems, coupled with better soil and crop knowledge.

"What we used to do to produce crops has changed dramatically in the past 35 years," said agronomist Brock Taylor, who works as a crop consultant. "Now, 99 percent of my clients are on drip systems. Technology allows farmers to mitigate risk and improve profitability."

Several people expressed concern to the panel about a lack of certified crop and pest consultants available to provide guidance to California farmers. Effective nitrogen management, it was suggested, may require a larger number of crop advisors and a much greater use of laboratory foliar and soil tests to more closely track on-farm nitrogen levels.

Panelist Daniel Munk, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, said continued improvements in training will be key.

Munk said water shortages have driven tremendous change in California agriculture and effort needs to be focused on areas "where today we have an opportunity to monitor more closely systems that have the potential for continued leaching of nitrogen."

The panel noted a need for continued research on irrigation and nitrogen-application information.

"How do we set out a plan to get that type of information?" Munk said. "Uptake and utilization information gets lost in research projects that aren't focused on providing that component."

Farm agronomist Paul Giboney told the panel that public research "is not current with today's production. Irrigation, varieties, rootstocks, even training systems and cultural practices have evolved tremendously from what they were 40 years ago."

Giboney, who chairs the California Grape and Tree Fruit League Environmental Resources Committee, also called for better training of crop advisors and others who are in a position to make recommendations to growers.

"We're interested in providing growers with information and tools they don't already have," Merkley said.

Merkley said taking careful steps based on good science will help ensure improved groundwater quality in the long run.

"The last thing we need to do is collect more data that's going to sit on the shelf somewhere and collect dust," he said.

Presentations and written comments to the expert panel are available 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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