Treading water took on new meaning for California’s already short-handed and aging array of professional agricultural consultants at the recent 37th annual California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA) conference in Reno, Nevada.

Speaker after speaker hammered home California’s burgeoning water quality regulations and the role Pest Control Advisers (PCAs) and Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) will play in keeping pesticides and fertilizers, particularly nitrates, out of groundwater and surface water.

This only adds to the environmental responsibilities of these two professional groups as the state moves rapidly toward a virtual zero pollution policy that will mandate every farm and business in the state adopt a management plan to keep water carrying pollutants out of lakes, streams, creeks, irrigation ditches and just about any other water body in the state.

More than 1,200 people — two-thirds PCAs — heard Pamela Creedon, executive director of the California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board; Jay Vroom, president of the Washington, D.C.-based CropLife America; and Fresno, Calif., ag consultant Bob Ehn hammer home the onerous water quality regulations the future holds for farmers and dairymen.

Creedon vowed she is not the “enemy” and wants to regulate water quality standards to sustain agriculture, not to put it out of business, as many farmers profess the California regional water boards are attempting to do in trying to achieve a zero tolerance. However, while not avowing to be the bad lady, she admits that the regulations will add to the cost of farming and dairying, not to mention hefty fines for pollution.

“I was called a pest this morning,” she chuckled before being a keynoter at the opening general session.

“The primary reason we are doing the things we do is to have a sustainable agricultural economy,” she said. “It is not about ending ag. The reason we want to protect water quality is so ag can survive.”

Creedon oversees the largest of nine regional water quality boards in the state charged with first monitoring water quality and then mandating management plans.

The Central Valley region covers 60,000 square miles from the Sierra to the Coast Range and from the Oregon border to the base of the Tehachapi Mountains in southern Kern County, Calif. It covers 40 percent of California’s land mass and encompasses two major water sheds, the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. It also enfolds the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta that is the source of 60 percent of California’s drinking water.

It is also home to the second largest contiguous groundwater basin in the state, a major water source for municipal drinking water in the valley and irrigation water for farming.

Five year deadline

Most importantly to the CAPCA gathering, this region contains 80 percent of the 9 million irrigated lands in the state — more than 7 million acres. And an estimated 3 million of that is considered critical for nitrate and salt pollution. It also contains nearly 80 percent of the dairies in the state, an estimated 1,500 operations.

The program is currently focused on water quality monitoring to see if and where pollutants are getting into waterways, but that will soon change as the agency starts mandating managing plans in 2012 for various areas within the Central Valley region. Every farm must have a best management plan in place within the next five years.

Most of these areas match farmer-created coalitions which were formed to mitigate the cost of the new regulations. It would be very expensive for individual farms to do the mandatory monitoring, although each farm will eventually be required to have a water quality management plan. Coalitions were formed to more economically monitor waters.

Creedon said her agency has tried to draw stakeholders into this monitoring and regulation drafting process. It has been somewhat successful with the coalitions. Others like CAPCA, California Department of Pesticide Regulations, commodity groups and environmental organizations are playing roles in this process.

However, she said she is “amazed at how many are sitting on the sideline and coming in too late to have an impact on the situation.” She encouraged industry input so regulators may understand industries affected by the surface and groundwater protection regulations.

All farmers and dairies in the state will soon be required to evaluate their water management practices and evaluate how they impact water quality and adopt best management practices to mitigate any pollutants.

“This is not just about restoring water quality, but about protecting the high quality water areas we have,” she said.

Since pesticides, fertilizer, salts and sediments have been identified as possible pollutants, it will be the PCA and CCA who will carry even more responsibilities than they now have in meeting the new water quality mandates. PCAs are mostly involved with pesticides. They are licensed by DPR and are charged with writing pesticide recommendations. CCAs are accredited by the American Society of Agronomy and overseen by a California board of directors. It is a voluntary certification program for individuals that provide advice to growers on crop management and inputs. A CCA is one of the professionals that must certify nutrient management plans for dairies that are being mandated by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board.

More than 80 percent of the California CCAs are also licensed PCAs.

Creedon said these two groups are “front and center … playing a critically important role” in working with farmers and dairymen in making sure what is used on the farm does not become a pollutant.

Farmers, she admitted, do not like to talk to regulators. She encouraged professional consultants to work closer with the grower coalitions and in communicating with growers and dairymen on the importance of complying with the growing water quality regulations.

It can be costly if a producer is caught polluting, intentionally or otherwise. It has already cost one farmer $300,000 in fines who was found in violation of interim water quality protection regulations, she said. It undoubtedly could get more expensive in the future.

NPDES

While pesticides, nitrates and salts have drawn the closet scrutiny, runoff sediments are drawing more attention lately since some chemicals, like pyrethroids, have been detected attached to sediments — not in the water, according to consultant Ehn. This is drawing water quality regulatory attentions along with pyrethroid use review. While it seems to be more of an urban issue, it will impact pyrethroid use in farming, he added.

Much anticipated federal regulation on National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) compliance had not shown up in the Federal Register by the time Vroom took the CAPCA podium in mid-October. The courts had ordered them to be in place by Nov. 1.

A federal lawsuit stemming from fish-killing pesticide pollutions in Oregon several years ago mandates a separate pesticide permitting process for any aquatic pesticide, or pesticide use near a waterway. The agchem industry contends existing laws already cover that.

The regulations address four unique situations that call for the application of crop and health protection products to water: mosquito and other flying insect pest control; aquatic weed and algae control; aquatic nuisance animal control; and forest canopy pest control. The agricultural industry has challenged the need for such regulations and has championed legislation to negate the court rulings. That has not been successful legislatively or in the courts.

Many states, including California, adopted NPDES regulations governing pesticide use in these situations in the wake of court rulings backing new rules. However, Vroom noted that without clear federal government regulations, agencies like mosquito control abatement districts and other are feeling vulnerable to litigation without final rules. They want to know what the feds have to say.

However, EPA has said for agencies not to worry that state regulatory agencies “know what to do” sans federal rules, according to Vroom. That is not very assuring in this litigious era, he said. The general aquatic permit will be used in states where EPA is the authorized permitting authority, leaving 44 remaining states to issue and implement their own NPDES permits, which presumably must comply with new EPA rules.

NPDES rules will cover 5.6 million applications nationwide annually by 365,000 applicators using more than 400 different pesticides in 3,500 product labels.