The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is finding it rough sledding when it comes to gaining the approval of a long-term plan to clean up surface and groundwater discharges from 7 million acres of farmland in California’s agricultural heartland.

The Water Board is scheduled to meet again in June after spending hours on April 7 hearing testimony on a proposal that could require thousands of California farmers to monitor and clean up groundwater. During that April meeting in Rancho Cordova, the board decided not to vote on a “framework” that would establish long-term groundwater and surface water regulations. The board is slated to take up the framework again during its three-day meeting beginning June 8.

Under the proposed framework, farmland would become classified into “tiers” based on the level of risk to surface and groundwater. Farms considered most likely to pollute would have to take certain measures to reduce discharges of sediment and farm inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides.

The board’s plan has farmers and environmentalists disgruntled.  Farmers say the proposal, which would require them for the first time to monitor nutrients leaching into groundwater, is too strict. Environmentalists, on the other hand, say it’s too lenient. Either way, it may be awfully expensive, with estimates ranging from $200 million to $1.3 billion per year – most of that cost tied to growers’ projects to improve water quality, digging monitoring wells and producing reports for the board.

Included in the board’s “framework” for improving Central Valley water quality is a provision that again gives growers the option of joining a water quality coalition or filing for individual permits.  With either approach, they will still need to develop farm evaluation plans and possibly nutrient management plans based on the risk of their operation to surface or groundwater.

Here’s an interesting fact: the coalitions that farmers would have to join have actually been around for the better part of a decade. The coalitions were formed by farming groups in response to the 2003 version of the regulation. A total of eight coalitions perform monitoring of surface water such as rivers, creeks and sloughs, organize outreach and prepare the endless reports for the Water Board.

Growers pay between $1.50 and $2.50 per acre per year in membership dues to belong to the coalitions. Through 2011, 12 cents per acre of the dues go to pay for Water Board staffing. In 2012, the state fee will increase to 38 cents an acre.