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.

Regulations an added burden

Farmers say their coalitions are making headway on improving surface water quality and the new groundwater regulations are sure to be an even bigger burden, said Parry Klassen, a farmer and executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. Nearly 70 percent of farmers in the Central Valley who have the potential to discharge pollutants into surface water belong to the eight water coalitions.

A survey done by Klassen found that the coalitions spent $31.8 million in grower paid dues between 2004 and 2010 for monitoring, writing reports and grower outreach. And, as a result, Klassen says there have been documented successes in improving water quality on the farms belonging to coalition members over this time span.

 “There is an attitude among growers that we’re just overregulated,” he said. “And this new regulation is going to require us to report on what we’re already doing to protect groundwater. It will dramatically increase the number of new reports we will need to prepare on how we irrigate, fertilize and operate our farms.”

Many farmers are already limiting their use of nutrients, Klassen noted, because of high fertilizer prices in recent years. “There’s nobody out here who can afford to waste fertilizer.”

Nonetheless, environmental groups say the board’s proposed regulations are too weak, because they don’t hold individual farmers accountable.

However, Klassen points out that the Water Board has punished coalition members who have failed to clean up their acts – including a $300,000 fine against an almond grower for discharging sediment, and several fines of $2,000 to $3,000 levied against members for reporting infractions.

Coalitions efforts paying off

Klassen adds that coalition efforts are paying off. Concerning surface water problems: “Our challenges are holding water on the field and managing spray drift. Spray drift is a big contributor to the water quality problems that we are seeing. The problems we are witnessing are very minor but they exceed the 15 parts per trillion standard. We’re not killing fish. Rarely ever do we see fathead minnow toxicity in the smallest fish we test.”

Concerning groundwater contamination, nitrates are the biggest concern, especially among the environmental justice community.  “Nitrate management has to be improved in areas that are vulnerable, if it is needed,” Klassen said. “Irrigation is certainly a component in vulnerable areas if there is over-irrigation. We also have to ensure that nitrate is applied only when the plant can use it and not when it can leach through the soil profile and into groundwater.”

How does Klassen see the June 8 Water Board meeting playing out? He expects the current Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program to be extended another year (it expires in July). The ILRP gives farmers the option to join coalitions rather than obtain individual wastewater discharge permits, as factories, businesses and cities must do. The extension is necessary because the coalitions will not have their new orders that cover groundwater approved for at least a year. When finalized, the regulations and resulting order from the board would go into effect in 2014.

And what is Klassen’s reply to environmental groups that want stiffer compliance regulations enforced against California farmers who might be tempted to skirt the law?

“We have no motivation to lie about what we do on our farms,” he said. “We drink the same water and use it on our crops. And the coalitions were created by farmers to address water quality issues when they are identified, not protect farmers from regulations. It’s preposterous to think that there is widespread fraud as the activists infer, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest this is occurring. We have families too and care about the land and water that is so valuable to our livelihoods.”

That said, buckle your seatbelts. June’s water board hearing promises to be a doozy.