Irrigation lands proposal concerns ag
Growers urged to attend Aug. 21 meeting
Water and agricultural officials expect a full house Aug. 21 when the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board holds a workshop in Tulare to discuss its controversial Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program Monitoring — Surface Water and Groundwater draft plan.
Also on the agenda is the Tulare Lake Basin Waste Discharge Requirements.
The draft plan, which was released just recently, calls for new regulations, new monitoring and fees and hefty fines for growers who don’t comply.
“The range (of fees) they’re talking about is staggering,” said Ron Jacobsma, general manager for the Friant Water Users Authority. “It’s a whole new regulatory regime and bureaucracy,” he added.
The Aug. 21 meeting will begin at 10 a.m. at the Southern California Edison, Energy Education Center, 4175 S. Laspina St., Tulare and is expected to last most of the day, said Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Patricia Stever Blatter. However, the board has a time limit of 120 minutes for each topic.
“We’re just up to our eyeballs,” she said of responding to concerned growers.
She said the Irrigated Lands discharge order for agricultural landowners began in 2003 and was a regulatory framework focused on irrigated lands and surface water discharges.
Now, Blatter noted, the program is being significantly expanded to include groundwater quality monitoring, which means nearly all 4 million acres of farm land in the Tulare Lake Basin (excluding Westlands) will be impacted by the change being made to the waste discharge order for irrigated lands in the South San Joaquin Valley.
The potential mandates, which require no legislative action, could prove very costly. Estimates are the charge per acre for monitoring range from $15 to $120. The area serviced by Friant water is 1.6 million acres.
“Potentially, this could be very expensive and put growers out of business,” said Sean Geivet, manager of the Porterville, Terra Bella and Saucelito irrigation districts.
He called the regulations “unprecedented.”
Stever said it is critical for growers to be at the table during the development and drafting of the new program.
“The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is estimating the annual costs for the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program to be nearly $100 million, and those costs are largely because of the expected adoption of mandatory best management practices that growers will have to utilize in complying with the new order and the expectation that the Regional Board is going to require hundreds of new monitoring wells to be drilled for representative monitoring and trend analysis,” she said.
The water board is attempting to establish an order to regulate surface and groundwater discharges by landowners and operators, reported Friant Waterline, a publication put out by the Friant Water Authority. It would require growers to register and participate in the monitoring program, or face expensive consequences. Officials say fines can run as high as $15,000 a day for non-compliance.
On its website, the water board states it is trying to be proactive to control agricultural discharges.
“The California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Central Valley Region (Central Valley Water Board) recognizes that past regulatory approaches have not protected all groundwater from historical and current practices associated with land applications of waste. For example, in some areas of the Central Valley Region groundwater produced from some aquifers that serve individual and community drinking water systems have been polluted and are unsafe to drink,” the board states.
Jacobsma and Geivet both said this is the first time the water board has tried to regulate groundwater and groundwater contamination, and that’s the problem.
“You can trace surface water contamination. With underground, there’s no way to deal with that. How do you know where the contamination came from,” said Geivet.
In addition to the irrigation land regulations, state regulators recently proposed a plan to address nitrate issues by requiring farmers to document and limit their use of nitrogen-based fertilizer, which, if over-applied, can seep into the groundwater and become toxic nitrates. Although a separate but related issue, there are many concerns from the agricultural industry on how the regulations will impact their irrigated lands management.
According to an article in this month’s Tulare County Farm Bureau publication, one proposal in the draft order suggests a program which would require farmers to keep “nitrogen budgets” documenting the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer applied to a particular crop. Farmers will be required to test well water and document the nitrogen content of water used for irrigation.
Farmers in high vulnerability areas for nitrate contamination — which includes more than half of the irrigated land in the Valley — would be required to submit their budgets for review by the regional water board. Farmers in areas of low vulnerability would be expected to produce nitrogen budgets on request.
Geivet said farmers already adjust fertilizer use to compensate for too much nitrate in the water.
Stever echoed what Geivet stated.
“What is most disconcerting is that the Regional Board seems to be of the opinion that all growers with irrigated lands are likely to be causing degradation to ground and surface waters, and that is just not true. Most farmers are already implementing many practices to conserve and protect their water resources, and due to the expensive nature of nutrients, they apply them very responsibly and conservatively to their fields.
She added that legacy pesticides, naturally occurring contaminants and even septic tanks could be sources groundwater pollution.
“Agriculture certainly has an important role in helping solve the problem, but it is not fair to accept that farmers are the cause of all our water quality issues in this state,” she said.
On July 31, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved sending a letter of concern to the water board considering the proposed regulations.
For more information on the South San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition visit the website: www.ssjwqc.org.