Groundwater regulations for Central Valley agriculture came one step closer to reality on June 9, when the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a two-year extension for the existing Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. The extension gives state regulators and watershed coalitions time to write their new “General Orders,” which will contain region-specific requirements to address both surface- and groundwater quality.

The Regional Board meeting in June followed a more contentious meeting in April, in which the Board adopted an Environmental Impact Report written to cover the new “Long-Term Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.” In an eight-hour-long hearing, both coalition and activist groups tried to convince the Regional Board that the EIR was inadequate and an accompanying “framework” was flawed. While the board approved the EIR, it deferred any action on the framework, in part because agriculture attorneys called it an “underground regulation” and its legal standing was put in doubt.

The framework document emerged in February 2011 after members of the Regional Water Board staff integrated their own positions, public comments and the “Five Options” were developed through a lengthy stakeholder process in summer 2010. While the framework was intended as a guide to writing the new surface- and groundwater programs, the Board refused to pass a resolution making the framework an official regulation. Instead, the Board instructed its staff to begin writing the coalition-specific orders without the framework being adopted.

At the June meeting, Board staff members outlined their time frame for preparing the individual and coalition-specific orders. Because of limited staffing, the orders will be written and presented for a Board vote over the next eight to 24 months. The staff expect to have completed orders ready for a Board vote in January 2012 for the California Rice Commission and East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, and by summer and fall 2012 for the following coalitions: Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition, South San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition and the Sacramento River Watershed Coalition. The Westlands Water District would be slated for approval by April 2013, when the new two-year extension expires.