Groundwater nitrate issues reach political level

Groundwater nitrate issues reach political level

The stakes for farmers and farmland couldn't be much higher as new regulations call for increased scrutiny on groundwater and contaminants that include nitrates.

A flurry of meetings is under way as leaders of the Kings River Water Quality Coalition reach out to growers on nearly 1 million irrigated acres of the nation’s most productive farmland.

The meetings were spawned by new regulations from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board that call for increased scrutiny on groundwater and contaminants that include nitrates.

“Before, the focus was on surface water,” said David Orth, who heads the coalition. “Now it’s expanding into groundwater.      

Orth and others addressed a nearly packed conference room at the Fresno County Farm Bureau. He began by pointing out that the issue of nitrates in drinking water “has elevated this program to a pretty significantly high political level.”

Regional watershed coalitions, such as the one Orth heads, first formed years ago to address the issue of surface water contaminants. They continue to bring growers together to pool resources and reduce the costs of compliance with orders under the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

An order adopted by the water board Sept. 19 considers that any irrigated land has the potential to discharge into groundwater. Previously, growers could be excluded from regulation under the program if they could show that runoff from their land did not reach a surface water body.

Orth said growers on irrigated farm land who produce “$1,000 per year of gross product” will have about six months to join the coalition or to get an individual discharge permit.

Going it alone is more costly.

“It’s not a choice I would make personally,” said Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer with the State Water Resources Control Board in Fresno.

One goal of the coalition is “to protect grower information on issues such as nitrogen management,” Orth said, explaining that information it shares with regulators will be at “the township level, 36 square miles, without farm specific information.”

The coalition monitors and assesses water quality and prepares summary reports on management practices.

Currently there are nearly 450,000 acres covered under the coalition. Almost another 500,000 must still be enrolled, Orth said.

“We’re reaching out to thousands of individual on this,” he said. Also planned are meetings with commodity groups.

The coalition is working on “grower templates” for various reports that must be filed. All coalition members will be required to prepare and submit a farm evaluation plan, a nutrient management plan, and, if applicable, a sediment and erosion control plan. Deadlines for submitting those plans vary depending on whether the farm is above or below 60 acres and whether the parcels are located in a high- or low-vulnerability area.

The coalition will identify vulnerable areas after studying available groundwater data, soil conditions, and other factors that potentially lead to the leaching of unused agricultural chemicals into groundwater.

High vulnerability areas are regions where groundwater is already contaminated, while low vulnerability areas are areas where the risk to groundwater is reduced. The determination of the high and low vulnerability areas is expected to be done within a year.

George Nikolich, vice president for technical operations with Gerawan Farming Inc., asked Rodgers for his advice if a grower wanted to contest the classification of “high vulnerability.”      

Rodgers advised against an individual appeal to the water board. He recommended first making the case to the coalition itself.

Legacy issue?

Orth pointed out the coalition operates as a third party that “assists with compliance, not somebody who tries to regulate.”

Orth said he suspects most of the farmland within the coalition’s boundaries east of Highway 99 will fall into the classification of high vulnerability. “West of 99 the amount of high vulnerable land will depend on how much latitude we have in defining vulnerability,” he said.

Nikolich said he is troubled by the assumption that blame for nitrates in drinking water appears to be resting mostly on agriculture: “Right now, the default is to assume it’s ag related. and so we’re dealing with a black eye in terms of public relations.”

Orth concurred with the notion of “guilty until proven innocent” and said, “It’s our obligation to prove to them our practices are protective.” He said the coalition hopes to conduct “a massive data collection process over the next three years” that will help to tell the story of agriculture.

He added that the coalition is considering working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on “an isotope project to identify source and age.”

The research, he said, could help determine “is it a legacy issue and not a current ag issue, or is it a human use issue or natural issue.”

Fresno County grower Bill Chandler asked Orth if he thought the new regulations could affect cropping patterns “if you’re growing crops that take more nitrogen.”

“I think this is going to ultimately prove to be commodity specific and/or management practice specific,” Orth replied. “Over time we’re going to learn that certain commodities use certain management practices, irrigation and nitrogen applications that present themselves to be a challenge. We’ll have to narrow it down and talk about what we have to do to refine this.”

There was some concern among those at the meeting that pressure could be stepped up to force costly changes in farming practices, for example replacing flood irrigation with drip systems.

“I’ve been told they can’t tell you that you have to go to drip,” Orth said. “What they can tell is that what you’re doing today is not protective and you will have to change. There’s a little bit of a nuance there. And so I think the challenge will be to figure out what are your alternatives.”

Rick Hoelzel, project director with the coalition, outlined costs for belonging to the coalition. For current coalition members, those inside the coalition service area pay $2.27 per acre; those outside pay $2.39 per acre. They also pay a year’s administrative fee of $ $26 per invoice.

New coalition members inside or outside the coalition service area pay $1.16 per acre, in addition to an administrative fee of $26.

The cost differential is due to current members being covered by both the surface and groundwater portions of the program. New members are assumed at the start not to have surface discharge issues and are only assessed the groundwater component of the cost.

Details on the coalition and the new state order are available at



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