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Groundwater Discharge

Groundwater Discharge

Regulations Are Nearing

New regulatory requirements likely to be felt by owners or operators of most Fresno Irrigation District farms are on a path to become reality by mid-year.

The Central California Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP), which already regulates surface water, is quickly heading for expansion to cover agricultural water discharges to groundwater within the Tulare Lake Basin watershed, which includes all FID territory. Nitrates are a particular target.

In December, the Regional Board adopted a general waste discharge order for the Eastern San Joaquin River watershed region in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties. Now, the Regional Board staff is in the process of framing the order that will compel every grower to participate in preventing nitrates and other pollutants from being discharged into groundwater.

“Every grower and farm manager is going to be affected,” said Gary Serrato, FID General Manager. “All irrigated lands are to be regulated because the Regional Board and staff have determined every valley farm parcel has the potential through irrigation percolation to pollute the aquifer.”

The looming regulations are the result of state law that is now being implemented by the regional water boards in the Central Coast and Central Valley of California. The Eastern San Joaquin general order was the first to be adopted by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Water agencies such as FID are involved, but only to the extent of informing and helping guide growers. Regional Board officials have made clear that the ultimate responsibility will be on the grower.

The Kings River Conservation District continues to be a leader in working with the Regional Board staff on behalf of agricultural interests. KRCD also manages a joint powers authority organized to serve as a Kings River watershed representative for landowners, growers and farm operators. Another KRCD responsibility is management of the Southern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, which represents the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers.

Growers for the most part have been none too pleased about the prospect of facing still more red tape and higher fees and related compliance costs.

They have not hesitated to sound off. More than 400 attended a raucous Regional Board workshop last July in Tulare and more than 500 for a time packed a hearing on the issue at Bakersfield in late November. Various water agency representatives attended a hearing in Rancho Cordova December 7, a session that stretched into the evening before the Eastern San Joaquin order was adopted.

On the other hand, thanks to months of direct involvement and negotiations undertaken by KRCD, other water agencies and agricultural interests, many changes have been made that appear to make the pending regulations considerably less stringent than had been proposed originally by the Regional Board staff.

It now appears that a draft Tulare Lake Basin irrigated lands general order will be issued by the Regional Board in early March. A third workshop on the Tulare Lake Basin regulations will be conducted by the Regional Board on April 25 in Fresno area location that has not been announced. A hearing and likely Regional Board adoption of the Tulare Lake general order are currently planned to occur in June.

The draft plan is expected to be similar in many respects to what was adopted in the Eastern San Joaquin River watershed.

It reflects revisions requested by water user and agricultural interests that place considerably more responsibility on local watershed coalitions. Those coalitions, such as the one now in place on the Kings River, would seek to enroll and represent all growers in their area.

“It is going to be extremely important for each grower to be represented by a coalition,” Serrato said. “Those who do not join will still have to comply with the general order but will have to seek permits individually, with many more restrictions and costs.”

It is not yet known the extent of fees and costs coalition members will face although KRCD officials believe they will be far less than estimates debated last summer in Tulare.

Another key revision will place responsibility for proposing high and low nitrate vulnerability areas in the hands of local coalitions. Monitoring in most cases would be on a township basis of 36 square miles instead of a one square mile section proposed earlier. Farmers with 60 acres or less of land would have more time to comply.

All farmers would have to to prepare a nutrient management plan including farms located in what ultimately is determined to be low vulnerability areas with high quality groundwater. Coalitions would have to calculate their mass application of nitrogen annually.

Growers are still going to face compliance with regulations and requirements on how they manage irrigation and application of nitrates in fertilizers, despite arguments voiced by many farm interests at the Tulare and Bakersfield sessions. Many who testified contended the proposed rules are misdirected, fail to recognize crop water and nitrogen use efficiencies agriculture has already achieved and do not adequately differentiate between existing irrigation management and “legacy” practices that created the nitrate problem decades ago. Potential grower expense has also been criticized.

Regional Board members and staff officials agree that the situation is complex but contend regulators must have the detailed data that growers and monitoring programs are to provide.

Executive Officer Pamela Creedon said at the Bakersfield hearing the proposals are “an adaptive and innovative approach. We need the information so we can adapt.”

Members of the environmental justice community, who have focus on nitrate contamination problems plaguing a number of rural valley communities, were unhappy that the Regional Board has weakened its proposed rules. Instead, they argued, the rules need further tightening. They also want discharge data to be highly detailed and traceable to individual growers.

 

For more information regarding the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, contact Eric Athorp at (559) 476-0539.

Last Updated Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 04:36 AM.