Tailing nitrogen involves a crowd

Tailing nitrogen involves a crowd

Are nitrogen groundwater conclusions correct in California, or premature?

Little time has been lost in structuring a task force to track the path of one of the basic chemical requirements of agricultural crops, nitrogen. It was only a year or two ago that nitrogen (or nitrates) was discovered in the drinking water of people living in several predominantly agricultural communities in California. The assumption was that nitrogen which had been applied to crops had descended to the below-ground aquifer from which drinking water supplies were drawn and pumped to homes.

Seemed to be a natural and maybe logical conclusion, or it could have been one that several people in and out of agriculture jumped to.  Spokesmen for the farm community found it hard to deny the “plant food in the aquifer” claim because nitrogen fertilizer is universally applied. Hardly a plant exists that isn’t treated to its share of nitrogen, likely annually, along with other fertilizer components.

Supporting the conclusion was the fact that the nitrogen-laced drinking water existed predominantly in California’s highly concentrated agricultural areas, notably the Salinas Valley and parts of the central and south central San Joaquin Valley.

Though she might have slipped into a pair of waders first, Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross jumped into the controversy/mystery with both feet by appointing a task force to study the issue and report promptly. She had the cooperation and accompaniment of the State Water Resources Control Board, making it a combined CDFA-SWRCB effort.

The 27-page report of the task force was issued promptly in November 2013, recommending activities and projects to either prove or dispel early conclusions about the groundwater contamination, and others to provide solutions and corrections. 


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The 28-member task force recommends eight areas of study and investigation: 1) system structure, 2) data elements, 3) roles, responsibilities and data accessibility, 4) benefits of participation, 5) verifiability, 6) social benefits of the recommended system, 7) limitations, and 8) system phase-in.

Summarized and simply stated the recommendations seek to answer questions about how much and where nitrogen is being applied, how much of it is being taken up by crops, how much is lost as emissions to groundwater and what the impact of that loss is to groundwater quality.

In her appointment of members to the task force Secretary Ross was careful to include representatives of agriculture, the environmental and environmental justice communities, local, regional and state governments, and both of California’s university systems (UC and CSU), the Central Valley and Central Coast.

In announcing the report of the task force Secretary Ross’s office pointed out that nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient for food production and a fundamental building block of human life. Her announcement pointed out that new products, methods and irrigation technology have allowed farmers to apply fertilizer more precisely than ever before.


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