Legislation passed in 1999 mandates that California's nine regional water control boards revisit all regulatory water discharge waivers by the end of this year. This involves examining 49 different categories ranging from swimming pool discharges to small dairies to the timber industry.
All water discharge waivers and permits must be re-examined to ensure that they do not adversely impact the state's fresh water supply.
Waivers can be granted only by the regional boards, however, the State Water Resources Control Board is involved in this process to ensure consistency across California in re-adopting new, stricter water code guidelines. It is also acting as a funding source for some of the studies and monitoring that have become necessary in complying with the law.
While there are a host of categories impacted by this law, agricultural drainage is by far the largest. There are more than 5,000 agricultural drains in the state.
Four of the nine regions in the state have agricultural drainage. The three largest are the Central Coast, the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley. These three areas encompass the majority of the state's nine million acres of farmland.
Arthur G. Baggett Jr., chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the new law would not significantly impact the Imperial Valley since ag drainage is necessary to maintain the Salton Sea.
The Central Coast through what Baggett called a “strong coalition” of agriculturists, environmentalists and community leaders are effectively dealing with water quality issues there to protect Monterey Bay.
That leaves the regional water board overseeing the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, a region encompassing one-third of the state and 38 counties.
The state and central valley water boards are working with the University of California, Davis to begin monitoring 29 tributaries feeding into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers to determine what is in agricultural drain water.
“The most important thing we need right now is information — what is in ag drain water?” he said. “Everyone from the environmental community to the farm commodity groups we are working with understands we will not be able to meet the January permitting deadline because we have no firm data as to what is in ag drains.”
“What we need to ensure is that any monitoring program put in place is based on facts and what is needed for the betterment of both the environment and industry — not simplistic, Draconian measures,” points out Steve Beckley, president and CEO of the California Plant Health Association.
The monitoring program is the first of three steps the board will take to meet the law's requirements. The second is documentation to meet the California Environmental Quality Act. The State Water Resources Control Board has allocated funds for this purpose.
The third component is creating and demonstrating best management practices (BMP) in agriculture to mitigate any negative impact on the state's water quality. This would involve demonstration plots as well as recommended BMPs.
Beckley notes that agriculture already has in place several programs to protect California waterways.
“The idea that agricultural runoff is completely unregulated is nothing more than urban legend,” he points out. “Examples of industry proactiveness are the Rice Herbicide Program, the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Environmental Stewardship (CURES) and the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP). Each program conducts best management research or literature reviews and then provides education to growers, dealers and the public about proper product use. The ag community has been doing its fair share when it comes to protecting water quality.”
Baggett acknowledges agriculture's role now as well as its stance in complying with the mandates of the 1999 law. “I want to commend the agricultural community for stepping up to the plate and taking a pro-active approach to coming up with solutions to the ag drainage and water quality issues.
“Farm interests understand what is at stake here and are working hard to deal pro-actively with the issues,” said Baggett.
Baggett also understands the issues because he comes from a small farming community. “I know people who work the land want to take care of the land. They take the highest personal responsibility to protect the land and the water,” he added.
California's continued growth will elevate the importance of maintaining high water quality standards, said Baggett.
While California agriculture's vastness and water use make a large focal point of the water quality issue, Baggett said storm runoff from urban areas would loom larger in future water quality control issues. He expects people to be surprised to learn what is going into streams and rivers from urban areas.
“Monitoring was done on one Sacramento River tributary where there was no farm runoff, and the pesticide runoff was alarming,” he said.
“What is coming off city streets may well become far worse that what is coming off farm fields.”