One of three tests required to catch tainted ag runoff: River water too pure for algae growth

The smoking gun regulators and others expected to find when agricultural lands lost their exemption from the federal Clean Water Act has not been found in the largest of the nine regional watersheds in the state.

However, regulators have found something they did not expect — river water from one of the most intensively farmed areas in the world that is too clean, according to David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District who is also serving as chairman of the Southern San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition.

This coalition is in Region 5 of the nine watersheds in the state. It is the by far the largest region, covering the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley, one of the largest and most diverse farming areas in the world.

One of the first steps in this onerous process of regulating runoff from ag lands is monitoring. For the 4 million acres in the water coalition chaired by Orth, monitoring since April has turned up no significant toxic runoff from farmland.

Escapes detection

However, Orth told the 30th California Association of Pest Control Advisers conference in Anaheim, Calif., that a problem has surfaced. Water collected from the Kings River is too pure to grow algae at the rate regulators expect in the lab, one of the three tests required to catch tainted ag runoff.

That drew an audience laugh from the 1,000 PCAs and others at the annual CAPCA conference. The start up process to monitor and regulate ag water runoff has been a laughing matter at times, dealing with regional and state water quality control boards, admits Orth. One element of what Orth called at times a “soap opera” is getting a definitive of what is a water discharger.

“Basically if you farm and it rains on your farm, you are a discharger,” said Orth.

However, the mandate to regulate farmland runoff is no laughing matter.

For an individual farmer it could be very expensive, up to $20,000 to file a runoff management plan and report results of that plan.

That cost is one reason why farmers and water agencies have opted to form coalitions to represent large farming areas like the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

Some coalitions charge fees up to $100 per acre to monitor and develop runoff plans. Others, like the one Orth heads, are free.

The state mandate to monitor water runoff is daunting. Initially, Orth said agricultural leaders considered letting the state tackle problems on an individual farm basis, seemingly an impossible task.

However, Orth said the attitude in Sacramento is that that was exactly what the state would attempt to do by taxing all farmland in the state and hiring “tens of thousands water cops” to enforce the runoff management mandate for each individual farm.

Coalition better

Orth believes the coalition approach is a better way to address the problem because it allows farmers, PCAs and chemical manufacturers and others to be proactive in addressing any problems that surface through monitoring with best management plans to reduce problems.

Plus the ag runoff regulation plan is also about increasing waters supplies at the expense of agriculture, and agriculture must be at the table in the runoff issue to protect itself.

“People say if agriculture can conserve 5 percent of its water the water needs of the state could be met. That is a bunch of baloney,” he said. “Agriculture cannot be more efficient than we already are. We cannot conserve our way through the water crisis we are in this state.”

If planning began today for significant new surface storage to meet California water needs, it would be at least 20 years before there would be any tangible increase in supplies. And, that will come at “incredible cost.”

Agriculture must be engaged in this runoff regulatory process to protect its water supplies, said Orth.

Orth acknowledged that there are fears that this regulatory process will dramatically change farming practices and could result in the loss of agrichemicals if they are found in ag runoff, whether it be runoff from normal farming operations or storm water runoff, which the farmer cannot control.

Best management

Orth admits he has been called naïve, but he believes that if and when problems are discovered, best management practices can be developed by farmers and PCAs to satisfy regulators and preserve chemicals and minimize disruption in farming practices.

“If we can develop plans that produce positive result, water quality control boards will be hard pressed to ban chemicals,” he said.

“Unfortunately, agriculture is going to have to spend a whole lot of time and a whole lot of money on this water quality issue,” he added. However, he said it is necessary to ensure than changes necessitated by new runoff rules are practical rather than mandated by regulators.

For what consolation it may be, cities, industry, dairies and others will be under the same runoff regulatory microscope as farmland. For some, like cities, it may be more challenging to meet guidelines than for agriculture.

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