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.