California’s Groundwater Nitrate Problem Reaches Political Level

Western Farm Press. 31 October 2013.  A flurry of meetings is under way as leaders of the Kings River Water Quality Coalition reach out to growers on nearly 1 million irrigated acres of the nation’s most productive farmland.

The meetings were spawned by new regulations from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board that call for increased scrutiny on groundwater and contaminants that include nitrates.

“Before, the focus was on surface water,” said David Orth, who heads the coalition. “Now it’s expanding into groundwater.      

Orth and others addressed a nearly packed conference room at the Fresno County Farm Bureau. He began by pointing out that the issue of nitrates in drinking water “has elevated this program to a pretty significantly high political level.”

Regional watershed coalitions, such as the one Orth heads, first formed years ago to address the issue of surface water contaminants. They continue to bring growers together to pool resources and reduce the costs of compliance with orders under the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

An order adopted by the water board Sept. 19 considers that any irrigated land has the potential to discharge into groundwater. Previously, growers could be excluded from regulation under the program if they could show that runoff from their land did not reach a surface water body.

Orth said growers on irrigated farm land who produce “$1,000 per year of gross product” will have about six months to join the coalition or to get an individual discharge permit.

Going it alone is more costly.

“It’s not a choice I would make personally,” said Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer with the State Water Resources Control Board in Fresno.

One goal of the coalition is “to protect grower information on issues such as nitrogen management,” Orth said, explaining that information it shares with regulators will be at “the township level, 36 square miles, without farm specific information.”

The coalition monitors and assesses water quality and prepares summary reports on management practices.

Currently there are nearly 450,000 acres covered under the coalition. Almost another 500,000 must still be enrolled, Orth said.

“We’re reaching out to thousands of individual on this,” he said. Also planned are meetings with commodity groups.

The coalition is working on “grower templates” for various reports that must be filed. All coalition members will be required to prepare and submit a farm evaluation plan, a nutrient management plan, and, if applicable, a sediment and erosion control plan. Deadlines for submitting those plans vary depending on whether the farm is above or below 60 acres and whether the parcels are located in a high- or low-vulnerability area.

The coalition will identify vulnerable areas after studying available groundwater data, soil conditions, and other factors that potentially lead to the leaching of unused agricultural chemicals into groundwater.

High vulnerability areas are regions where groundwater is already contaminated, while low vulnerability areas are areas where the risk to groundwater is reduced. The determination of the high and low vulnerability areas is expected to be done within a year.

George Nikolich, vice president for technical operations with Gerawan Farming Inc., asked Rodgers for his advice if a grower wanted to contest the classification of “high vulnerability.”      

Rodgers advised against an individual appeal to the water board. He recommended first making the case to the coalition itself.  read more