Groundwater nitrate issue continues to dominate

Groundwater nitrate issue continues to dominate

Nitrogen use has been elevated to the No. 1 spot on the list of issues confronting California agriculture. A proactive educational approach has headed off an onslaught of legislation leading to new regulations or taxes.

It was the 65th annual California Weed Science Society conference, but fertilizer was on the mind of many there in Sacramento earlier this year.

It takes nitrogen to grow crops and weeds, and it was N that drew the first questions for Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, a keynoter at the event.

Nitrogen use has been elevated to the No. 1 spot on the list of issues confronting California agriculture with the release about a year ago of a University of California study that cited nitrates in groundwater as a major contaminant of drinking water.

The study spawned calls for a rush to regulations and taxation to punish agriculture and fund the cleanup of drinking water systems in many rural, impoverished areas of the state.

CDFA has been put in the bull’s-eye of the storm since it is the California cabinet level agricultural agency. CDFA also manages a program that already taxes fertilize sales for the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP). It is now the point agency in developing a curriculum primarily for Certified Crop Advisers (CCA), who are expected to play a major role in developing nutrient management plans for individual farms.

“We are working with the regional water boards to come up with alternatives for nutrient management,” she says. This, hopefully will head off a heavy-handed regulatory approach to addressing the problem.

One of the recommendations coming out of the UC report and being bantered around in Sacramento is mandatory farm nitrogen use reporting. Ross does not think that is necessary or wise to address the problem.

She said nutrient use reporting is “very different” from the mandatory pesticide use reporting now mandated. For one thing, nitrogen can come from many sources, such as, manure, compost, crop residue, residual soil nitrogen, irrigation water, rotation crops like alfalfa  to synthetic fertilizers. That makes it difficult to report accurate N sources. “There is a better way to collect data than mandatory use reporting,” she said.


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Renee Pinel, president of the Western Plant Health Association, said the CDFA curriculum development process involves the University of California scientists, and other state agencies like the California Department of Pesticide Regulation that have a stake in the irrigated lands program, and stakeholders.

So far, this proactive educational approach has headed off an onslaught of legislation leading to new regulation or taxes.

“I think legislators understand that the issue is complex” and are willing to let stakeholders and regional water boards work to address the new laws, Pinel says.

Also, water bond funds have been earmarked to mitigate nitrate-contaminated drinking water problems, precluding the need to tax farmers.

On the backs of farmers

This legislative silence does not mean spot bills could not still be introduced, Pinel added.

The groundwater nitrate problem was heaped upon the regulatory backs of farmers who are in the throes of the first half of what is being called the irrigated lands programs. Several years ago, agriculture’s exemption from water quality laws was revoked. That set off a chain of events that prompted extensive monitoring of runoff from ag lands and the drafting of regulations to mitigate that.

While agriculture was going through that process, the UC Davis report on nitrates and groundwater just added another regulatory layer to California farming.

The CCA has taken a front row seat on both issues. Unlike the state licensed Pest Control Adviser (PCA), the CCA consults primarily on water, nutrients and soil issue. The CCA program is voluntary, administered through the American Society of Agronomy and local chapters like the California CCA chapter. There are about 700 CCAs in California. That compares to 3,000 licensed PCAs.

The CCA has emerged as the third party in aiding farmers in writing nutrient management plans, but that is not without controversy. Some believe a farmer is capable of writing his own nutrient management and requiring a grower to pay for it is an unnecessary added expense.

And some CCAs apparently are reluctant to dive into this new arena. At the recent CCA annual meeting in Visalia, one CCA brought up the liability issue in development of nutrient plan for a farmer who may be cited for improper fertilizer management.


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Pinel acknowledged that the liability issue has surfaced, but it is not a “major issue,” she says.
The CCA “is not making a use recommendation” in a nutrient management plan as would a PCA in writing a pesticide use recommendation. Rather a CCA will offer “agronomically sound advice” to a grower on fertilizer use.

There is too much variability in the soils, organic matter and crops to make specific recommendations, she added.

Pinel agrees with Ross about fertilizer reporting. “Fertilizer use is not as black and white as pesticide use reporting. It involves different commodities, different soils, plant health and many other factors,”

Pinel admits that if a grower became out of compliance in the irrigated lands program and he paid for CCA nutrient management advice, there could be an issue of how much responsibility gets pushed back to the CCA who developed the plan.

Uncertainties swirling

That is just one of the uncertainties swirling around the irrigated lands program. There are six regional water quality control boards. These groups have total authority over their regions, and they regulate quite differently.

For example, the Central Coast board has implemented draconian regulations that threaten to shut down agriculture in places like the Salinas Valley. Agriculture has said proposed nitrogen fertilization goals from the board are unrealistic, like leaving no residual nitrogen on a field. Most scientists say this 1-pound applied, 1-pound utilized goal is impossible to achieve. Regulations like that have resulted in lawsuits over the Central Coast irrigated lands program and subsequently little dialogue between growers and regulators today.

Other areas like California’s Central Valley are working more harmoniously through what will be implemented to comply with clean surface and groundwater laws.

“The Central Coast is a lot different than the Central Valley,” said Pinel. “From our perspective, the important thing in the Central Valley is all parties understand the time pressure to meet deadlines they are under and are sincere about coming up with a program that meets the water board needs, without having major cost impacts on growers,” she said.  

“There are positive dynamics for moving forward and have a program finalized for the Central Valley,” she added.

It is a “complex issue; meeting the agronomic needs of farmers and the needs of disadvantaged communities to have clean drinking water.


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“It’s also something that can't be changed in the next few years. What happened 40 to 50 years ago will take decades to resolve,” she said.

In many areas, the problem is being addressed with farmer coalitions to share the costs of monitoring and compliance for both the surface and groundwater programs.

Just like the regional water quality boards, these coalitions differ in their approaches to the issues. Some believe none of these regulations are necessary and want to do only what is minimally necessary. Others like the East San Joaquin Water Coalition have taken a proactive approach and developed action plans to comply. The East San Joaquin group was the first to get a program approved by the Central Valley regional board.

Pinel said the plan developed for this 1.1 million acre region of the central San Joaquin Valley is considered a “template” for other coalitions.

However, that template “is not sitting well” with all other coalitions who are negotiating with the regional boards on their own plans.

Cornerstones of plan

The cornerstone requirements of the East San Joaquin Water Coalition plan:

Farm Evaluation Plan describes measures the farm is taking to protect surface and groundwater quality. The plan is completed once and updated annually, depending on the vulnerability designation. In low vulnerability areas, plans are kept at the farm headquarters but must be provided to the Regional Water Board upon request. Members in high vulnerability areas must submit plans to the coalition for compilation by region.

Nitrogen Management Plans summarize nitrogen fertilizer applications compared to crop production. The annual plan, the first due in 2014 or 2016, depending on the farm size and vulnerability designation, will list the previous year's nitrogen use and projected use for the upcoming season. In high vulnerability areas, the plan must be signed off by a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) or a grower trained to self-certify the plan. Members in low vulnerability areas keep the plan at the farm headquarters and need no sign-off.

Sediment and Erosion Control Plans are required, if a field has irrigation drainage or frequent storm water runoff into surface waters. Areas where these plans will be required are to be outlined in a report due to the water board in January 2014.

For all of the new plans, the coalition has until April 11, 2013 to submit proposed templates to the Regional Water Board. Plan details are being refined by a working group made up of Central Valley coalitions and commodity organizations.

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