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Central Valley ag bracing for new water regulations

This article appeared in the May 2004 issue of California Farmer magazine.

By Parry Klassen

It's been called unprecedented in the annals of Central Valley agriculture. Literally hundreds of farm interests drawn together to form eight regional watershed "coalitions," each different in size and makeup but all motivated by one goal: figuring out how to comply with the most comprehensive water quality regulations ever to face agriculture in California -- or any state in the U.S.

The coalitions sprang up almost overnight in response to the new "conditional waiver" of Waste Discharge Requirements passed on July 11, 2003 by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board). The "irrigation waiver" as it has become known, covers all the irrigated farmland in Region 5 of the Water Board, encompassing the Central Valley from Kern County up to the Pit River basin near the Oregon border.

The options

Formation of watershed coalitions is one "option" given to landowners and operators to be in compliance with the irrigation waiver. The two less desirable options involve filing for individual permits with the Water Board.

Many Central Valley growers are only just beginning to hear about a regulation on the books, in some form, for more than 16 months. Those involved with the waiver since its inception predicts both opportunity as well as serious issues, some scientific, others enforcement. The coalitions also face enormous challenges in setting up organizational structures, creating short and long term funding sources and fulfilling the report writing and water monitoring necessary for waiver compliance.

It started when legislation passed in 1998 ending "waivers" that allowed industries, agriculture being one of 23, to skip filing for discharge permits for runoff into state waters. The new regulations aim to force irrigated agriculture to address field runoff that at times, carries farm inputs (pesticides or fertilizers), sediment and other naturally occurring elements such as salt and boron from fields to state waterways.

"For more than 10 years, the Regional Board has been assessing water quality in Central Valley and certain pesticides continue to show up causing problems," says Bill Croyle, senior engineer and head of the waiver unit at the Regional Water Board. "Now with the development of several TMDLs (total maximum daily load) for the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers based on pesticides, salt and boron, this has brightened the light on agriculture's impact on waters of the state."

Legal wrangling

Some of the confusion stems from its rocky beginning when in December 2002, the Water Board in what some called a hurried vote passed the first version. The December waiver was replaced in July 2003 with a far more detailed waiver. Several appeals were filed in late 2003 with the State Water Resources Control Board, which ultimately overturned the actions and added more requirements of its own. As of late March, two lawsuits had been filed against the Regional and State Water Boards over the waiver: one by numerous environmental activist groups that combined efforts, the other by California Farm Bureau Federation. A ruling on the suits isn't expected until late 2004.

Despite the legal wrangling, the Regional Board is enacting the conditional waiver. "The state water code requires us to deal with water quality problems," says Robert Schneider, Water Board chairman. "We have attempted to craft a program that is as flexible as possible and takes advantage of the creativity and initiative of farmers. I am confident it will result in cleaner water."

The differing climate and hydrology from north to south valley dictate that flexibility is key, says Dave Orth, coordinator of the Southern San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition. "The watersheds in the south valley are hydrologically unique and separate from the Delta and other regions of the valley. Our cropping patterns and cultural practices vary and one solution will not fit every grower."

In late March, the Board began distributing more than 100,000 "Irrigated Lands Waiver" brochures detailing landowners' options for compliance. In a staff report to the Water Board in March, Croyle described plans to contact landowners who have not chosen one of the three options and notify them that they need to do so. Croyle explains, "We understand there is an education curve and we don't intend to use fines as a 'bat' to encourage compliance."

Board chairman Schneider agrees. "We are focusing on a problem-solving, taking time to fix problems and not punishing people." He adds that the Water Board will find ways to deal with farmers who don't want to cooperate. "We have tools such as waste discharge requirements. Recalcitrant people will be addressed."

Coalitions, which began organizing shortly before the waiver expired in 2002, are working to inform landowners about the new regulations. All eight Central Valley coalitions have held and are holding outreach meetings, explaining the new regulations to farmers and calming often harsh reactions to the watershed approach or need for the new regulations.

"Coalitions are emerging and I believe they will be a very effective vehicle to improve water quality and protect grower's interests," says David Guy, Executive Director of the Northern California Water Association. Guy is co-founder, with Ducks Unlimited and the Coalition for Urban/Rural Environmental Stewardship (CURES) of the Sacramento River Water Quality Coalition. "More importantly, we have created a culture for success. If the Regional and State Water Boards recognize this approach, we will be successful in addressing water quality issues in rural California. If we don't take advantage of this success culture, it will be a lost opportunity for California."

Defining storms

Most befuddling to landowners is the potential of being classified by the Water Board as a "discharger." Farm runoff is broadly defined in the regulation and includes irrigation return flows, tile water drained into surface water and most significantly, storm water runoff. In public meetings, Water Board staff has told farmers they must prove that they can contain storm runoff from the once in 100-year storm event to be exempt. Should this interpretation stand, virtually any Central Valley landowner is potentially a "discharger" during a large storm. "Defining the storm threshold is a policy call that needs to be made in a Water Board decision," Croyle says. "Our dairy program uses a 25-year event, while others use the 100-year baseline event."

While it is not illegal to discharge storm or irrigation runoff, the problems start when the runoff "causes or contributes to conditions of pollution or nuisance" and "contributes to exceedances of any numeric or narrative water quality standard," says the state Water Code. Upshot: Problems occur when runoff contains pesticides, nutrients or other constituents washed from farms.

This is where "conditions" come in. Landowners were granted a waiver from filing for waste discharge permits for farm runoff on the condition they join a coalition or apply for an individual discharger waiver - deal with the Water Board or a coalition.

Making a choice

Choosing a Water Board relationship could get expensive. A California Farm Bureau Federation study examined the cost of filing individually with the Water Board and monitoring individual farm runoff. Contracting with a consulting firm to perform initial work was estimated at $10,000 for the first year and $3,000 to $6,000 annually thereafter for water monitoring and reporting (based on a 200-acre operation).

The cost for joining a watershed coalition varies, depending on a landowner's location. Coalitions are taking different approaches to funding plan writing and performing water monitoring, the basic requirements to be a "legal" coalition. Those activities are being paid through collection of fees by irrigation and drainage districts, charging membership dues, seeking supporter funds or absorbing expenses into supporting group-operating expenses.

"Watershed coalitions are seen by many as the most economical and effective way to comply with the regulations and to improve water quality in the Central Valley," says Guy. "Our goal is to represent farmers within a watershed so they don't need to file individually."

Watershed coalitions were expected to meet a Water Board April 1 deadline for filing monitoring plans. A watershed use report was also due detailing cropping patterns in the coalition area, pesticides and nutrient use and a compilation of management practices that would protect water quality from farm runoff. Individual filers had the same reports and deadlines for filing.

Testing in July

Looming is a July 1, 2004 monitoring launch when coalitions are to begin monitoring agricultural drains or streams. The waiver requires a "phased" approach to sampling, relying the first year on toxicity testing and stream parameters such as flow and temperature. In year two and three, the list of constituents expands to nutrients and specific pesticides used by farmers in a watershed.

Toxicity testing is a standard analysis that exposes three test species to the water sample. When organism toxicity occurs, further analysis determines the cause. This approach should be only the starting point to determine the impact of ag drainage on the state's waterways, says Lenwood Hall, co-author of the monitoring report for the Sacramento River Water Quality Coalition and a aquatic toxicologist with the Wye Research Center, University of Maryland.

"Toxicity testing is just one line of evidence that should be used concurrently with chemical monitoring and bioassessements -- an evaluation of resident aquatic organisms -- to determine if ag runoff is impacting water bodies," says Hall. "This multiple lines of evidence approach is used in other part of the country to determine impacts of stressors on aquatic systems." Halls looks forward to working with Water Board staff and other coalitions to refine the monitoring approach.

Once toxicity is detected in a waterway, the coalitions are required to take actions. It is likely that coalitions will contact landowners with property that drains into the waterway explaining the problem. The coalition would then facilitate transfer of information on problem solving Best Management Practices (BMPs). Information could range from publications on specific BMPs to contact information on local experts, agencies or commodity groups who can assist in adoption.

If monitoring indicates the problem persists, regulatory action could be triggered. These actions might range from pesticide use restrictions, or in the case of nutrients, sediment or naturally occurring elements, discharge actions by the Water Board.

Monitoring costs

The biggest watershed coalition expense will be paying for water and sediment sampling and analysis. The waiver requires sampling once a month during the irrigation season and two winter storms. On the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley from Tracy to Los Banos, the watershed coalition is proposing to monitor 19 sites on agricultural drains or tributaries to the San Joaquin River.

"The cost to our growers for the first year of monitoring if spread over the entire area will amount to $5 an acre," explains Joe McGahan, manager for the Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition. Member water agencies will assess and collect the charges and also sign up growers to participate in the Coalitions, another huge Coalition responsibility. Private parties will also contribute to the monitoring and reporting. "We are encouraging growers to elect to participate in the coalition approach," McGahan adds.

On the east side of the San Joaquin River from Stanislaus to Madera Counties, growers are being charged $100 membership dues to join the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. This coalition is proposing seven sites to monitor in its region and fully expects to charge on a per acre basis to cover the cost of compliance, says Wayne Zipser, Director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and a eastside coalition founder.

The irrigation waiver is to expire in December 2005 when the Water Board will review Central Valley agricultures' progress with the program. "At that time, the board will either renew the waiver, modify it or use other regulatory tools to address water quality," says Croyle. "My hope is to continue the status quo and refine the program we've built so far."

Coalitions and regulators look to farmer determination to make the effort successful. "To the extent we can identify a water quality problem attributable to agriculture, I believe farmers will want to fix that problem," Schneider adds.

Contact information for Coalitions in the Central Valley:

Sacramento Valley

Sacramento Valley Water Quality Coalition
David Guy
Northern California Water Association
Sacramento CA
(916) 442-8333

Mark Biddelcomb
Ducks Unlimited
Sacramento CA
(916) 852-2000

Aaron Ferguson
Sacramento CA
(916) 442-8333

Parry Klassen
(559) 325-9855

Sacramento Valley Rice

California Rice Commission
Tim Johnson
(916) 442-8333

Sacramento / San Joaquin Delta

East San Joaquin County & Delta Water Quality Coalition
John B. Meek
John Brodie
(209) 946-6241, ext. 125

San Joaquin Valley:northwest

Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition
Joseph C. McGahan
(559) 582-9237

San Joaquin Valley:northeast

East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition
Parry Klassen
Coalition for Urban/Rural Environmental Stewardship
Sacramento CA
(559) 325-9855

Wayne Zipser
(209) 522-7278

San Joaquin Valley:south

Southern San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition
David L. Orth or Mike Mendes

Westlands Water District
Thaddeus Bettner

Parry Klassen is executive director of CURES and Chairman of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. He can be reached at

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