Groundwater Quality Discharge Rules OK’d

All portions of the Friant Division service area are now covered by strict new regulations governing water quality of discharges into the aquifer, rules that affect all irrigated agricultural acreage.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, with last month’s adoption of an Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program general order in the expansive Tulare Lake Basin region, will now work with regional watershed coalitions to implement the rules aimed at controlling nitrates and improving groundwater quality.
The affected territory includes some 850,000 acres in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties, south of the San Joaquin River (excluding the Westlands Water District and some other portions of the valley’s far West Side).
By the hundreds over the past 1½ years, growers took part in Regional Board hearings and workshops, largely to object to the rules.
Many contended that nitrates today are largely already under control and that contemporary water quality degradation affecting mostly rural residents and disadvantaged communities is largely a legacy issue left over from earlier farming eras when fertilizers were applied more heavily. Other contributors are septic systems, sewage treatment and decaying plants.
Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida was quoted in news accounts as saying the Regional Board order is another costly farm regulation. “It will take $3 million out of our local economy,” Ishida said.
On the other hand, direct involvement and negotiations by water agencies and agricultural interests led to many changes that appear to make the adopted order less stringent than had been proposed.
It’s the second general order adopted by the board. The first was adopted 10 months ago for the eastern San Joaquin region’s coalition area where the implementation process is well under way. That includes Friant Division service area farming operations in portions of Madera and southern Merced counties.
The Regional Board’s general order assumes all irrigated land has potential to discharge into groundwater. All irrigated parcels, regardless of size, must be in compliance with the order’s requirements by joining a recognized coalition.
There are coalitions forming in the Kings, Kaweah and Tule rivers service area and at least three coalitions are being organized in the Kern River region. The Friant Water Authority is not involved. Water districts are involved but only to the extent of informing and helping guide growers. The Regional Board’s officials place the ultimate responsibility on the grower.
If a grower with irrigated farmland does not join a coalition, coverage must be provided under an individual Regional Board order and related requirements.
Costs of individual compliance will be significantly greater than coalition fees and growers complying on their own would be compelled to do their own monitoring and reporting.
Some 7,200 growers are expected to be regulated in the Tulare Lake Basin program. Even if enrolled in a coalition, a grower will be required to do annual evaluations, preparation of nitrate management plans, reporting and paperwork.
The Regional Board estimates $2 or less per acre will be required annually but agricultural industry officials believe it will be $3-$10 per acre.
Surface water discharges from farms have been regulated on an interim basis since 2003. The regulations are all the result of state law that is now being implemented by regional water boards.

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