Irrigated Lands Rules Changed

Irrigated Lands Rules Changed

North Valley Regulations OK’d; Tulare Lake Basin Action Ahead

Waste discharge regulations aimed at protecting groundwater and adopted for a wide area north of the San Joaquin River have been changed considerably to be less stringent on growers but imposition of new nitrate-minimizing rules by regulators is just ahead.

Changes made by the Central California Regional Water Quality Control Board in framing a final Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed general order are also expected to be part of a similar order now scheduled to be considered in the spring for the Tulare Lake Basin watershed, which includes the Friant-Kern Canal’s primary service area.

Those revisions place considerably more responsibility on local watershed coalitions that would seek to enroll and represent all growers in their area who otherwise must individually comply with even more expensive, complicated and restrictive Regional Board permitting.

Pamela Creedon, Regional Board Executive Officer, said one such change means that “the coalitions will be proposing high and low [nitrate vulnerability] areas.”


Regional Board members acted December 7 in Rancho Cordova to adopt East San Joaquin waste discharge requirements to mandate agricultural irrigation protection of groundwater quality. Adoption came near the end of an 11-hour hearing.

That order includes the Friant Division’s Madera Canal service area in Madera and southern Merced counties and applies to growers opting to join an approved third-party group or coalition.

An appeal to the State Water Resources Control Board is considered likely but is not expected to delay consideration of the next general order – that for the Tulare Lake Basin (except for the Westlands Water District).


Part of the crowd attending the Bakersfield hearing November 30th


On November 30, during a Bakersfield hearing initially attended by more than 500 people, the Regional Board signaled its agreement with a number of less restrictive proposals advanced in a series of white papers by agricultural and irrigation representatives in the wake of a tumultuous Regional Board workshop on the Tulare Lake plan last summer in Tulare.

Growers would still be facing future compliance with regulations and requirements on how they manage irrigation and application of nitrates in fertilizers, and there were many who expressed concerns during the Bakersfield hearing. Attendance, however, fell off quickly and dwindled to about 40 during the afternoon session. The Tulare meeting also attracted hundreds of people.




Howard Frick, Arvin-Edison Water Storage District President, speaks during a Bakersfield hearing on ag discharge rules.

Many of those attending in Bakersfield continued to object to the program’s new costs and restrictions. As the Bakersfield Californian reported, “Many argued that the proposed rules are misdirected and unduly expensive for growers.”

Typical were comments of Dennis Devitt, a Kern County farm manager. “We’re all using every drop of water and every drop of fertilizer as efficiently as we can,” Devitt said.

A Kern County irrigation farm advisor, Blake Sanden, said Kern County growers have gained more than 89% nitrogen efficiency in recent years. “We have an unparalleled level of nitrogen efficiency here in Kern County,” he said.

Howard Frick, long-time Arvin-Edison Water Storage District President, said the district’s monitoring has shown no increase in nitrates over the past 40 years.


Other Kern County farm and water representatives contended the situation is so complex that it will require much time and effort to get new rules right. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work, they argued. “It is a complex situation,” agreed Dr. Karl Longley of Fresno, the Regional Board’s Chairman, but he said detailed data and information still being sought is what regulators must have.

To complaints voiced in Bakersfield that the Regional Board is attempting to regulate for nitrate contamination problems created over many past decades, Executive Officer Creedon said, “This order will not really be addressing legacy issues” but is intended to focus on current discharges. She said the proposals are “an adaptive and innovative approach. We need the information so we can adapt.” She denied the board is making any attempt to “stop ag.”


Far less satisfied with the eased regulatory proposals were representatives of a number of environmental justice organizations who made it clear they believe the Regional Board staff has gone too far in weakening the rules. They said the rules need further tightening, including elimination of some of the recent staff concessions, in order to protect and improve rural drinking water quality. They also want discharge data to be highly detailed and traceable to individual growers.

Phoebe S. Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance asserted the eased regulatory proposals suggest “the board continues to exhibit tolerance for groundwater contamination.” She also said she was “very disappointed” in a change to monitoring and reporting groundwater on a township basis – 36 square miles – rather than one-square-mile sampling zones originally proposed.


The East San Joaquin order as modified and approved contains some key provisions that the Southern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition and other agricultural representatives asked for in the still-to-be-drafted Tulare Lake Basin order.

Some of those points include:

  • Assigning local watershed coalitions with the responsibility of defining high vulnerability areas for nitrates based upon groundwater assessment.
  • Delaying compliance for small farmers with 60 acres or less.
  • Moving nitrogen use reporting to a summary account for growers in a high vulnerability area.
  • Scrapping a representative monitoring and evaluation program and substituting a separate program in which groundwater would be sampled on a township basis. Farm-specific information would still be required to be submitted if requested by the Regional Board.
  • Providing more options for certifying farmers’ management plans.
  • Requiring less paperwork from growers whose groundwater quality changes little from year to year.

However, the board acted on a last-minute change advocated by its staff to require all growers and farm managers to prepare a nutrient management plan, even if their farms are located in what ultimately is determined to be a low vulnerability area with high quality groundwater. Also now required is an annual calculation on the mass application of nitrogen. It also appears reporting templates that are developed would be subject to a public review process.


Kings River Conservation District General Manager David Orth, Southern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition Coordinator, said the Regional Board has indicated it wants a Tulare Lake Basin general order drafted and circulated for public comment by mid-February. The Regional Board would adopt the order by April 13 and Creedon would have until July 1 to approve local grower coalitions. The local watershed coalitions would then have 120 days (ending in October) to give notice to and to enroll every grower in the coalition.

Joe Karkoski, a Regional Board supervisor, said during the Bakersfield hearing that although local coalitions are destined under the program to play a key representational role, “The ultimate responsibility is on the grower. This is a very unique program in which a third party coalition has such a permanent role.” The coalitions would have to deliver their plans for high and low vulnerability areas as well as monitoring plans by July 1.

Increased charges to growers to pay for the program are not to begin until July 2014. Although as yet undefined, they are considered likely to be far less than some of the amounts debated last year.

The Southern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition has identified a number of specific issues. They include defining a “discharger to groundwater” as well as requirements for development of an outreach plan to growers, farm evaluation and nutrient management plan templates and a management practices effectiveness program. The coalition also wants the 120-day open enrollment period for growers extended.


In Sacramento meanwhile, it is evident the groundwater regulatory arena may be on the verge of becoming much more crowded. A number of water quality bills have already been introduced in the new Legislative session with indications there may end up being many other such proposals.


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