Confusion continues to cloud how growers can best do their part to cut down on underground water contamination in the most productive area of California’s Central Valley.

But regulators appear to have backed off some requirements that could have greatly boosted the cost to farmers, said David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District and coordinator of a coalition representing farmers in the four county areas of Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern.

Orth was among speakers at a Fall Citrus Meeting in Tulare County and spoke on the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. Other speakers addressed irrigation and nutrient management to prevent leaching of contaminants into groundwater, alternate bearing in citrus and frost protection.

Orth said the Southern San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition represents farmers tilling 1 million acres, but farmers on more than another million acres in the four counties have not joined the group.

One reason, he said, is that regulators have not made it clear to them what their alternatives are. An argument for joining the coalition has been that individuals outside the coalition would have to face individual regulation.

“They may think that they can attempt to prove there is not a discharge from their land,” Orth said. “That has been easier to prove when it involves surface water, but tougher with ground water.”

He cautioned growers not to ignore calls for sediment and erosion control plans, saying there is a “civil liability” in that. Orth said the regional water board staff has assessed significant fines that range into “five and six figures.”

Orth said the board has moved to nitrogen management plans for growers that would rely on ratios rather than going into individual “proposed and final accounting” budgets.

Orth said the engagement of commodity groups on the issue of keeping nitrates out of drinking water has helped coalitions, most notably at a meeting that drew some 400 people to a meeting of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in Tulare in August. He would like to see more “field trials with commodity groups” on nitrogen use.

Orth said regulators appear to have backed away from requirements that would have directed that nutrient management plans must be prepared by a specialist certified to do that. He said they also appear ready to drop a requirement that a licensed civil engineer would have to be hired for newly constructed or modified ponds, basins or tail water recovery systems.

He said any future costs will be “heavily dependent upon the level of monitoring” that growers would have to pay for. He called monitoring “the single most expensive thing” for the coalition. Orth said there remains much uncertainty about how the monitoring will be done and how its results will be used.

“The uncertainty about this is what a lot of us are concerned about,” he said.

Orth pointed out a Central Valley Water Board meeting will be held Nov. 30 in the Bakersfield area. It will include a discussion of the Eastern San Joaquin River watershed and Tulare Lake Basin waste discharge requirements. The meeting, location, starting time and agenda will be posted on the board’s web site, http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralvalley/ at least 10 days before Nov. 30.