The other water quality regulatory shoe is dropping on California agriculture, and it could be very costly, casting a net over just about everyone who farms in the state.

Since 2003, the State Water Resources Control Board and nine regional water quality boards have focused on protecting the surface waters of the state’s 9,500 miles of rivers/streams and 513,000 acres of lakes/reservoirs from pollutants.

Those involved in that seemingly Herculean task contend that through monitoring to identify pollutants and plans formulated to preclude pollution, the surface water quality mandate is being successfully met.

More recently, the state and regional boards have switched focus to protecting groundwater. That is becoming a much larger can of worms because it impacts everyone since there are countless wells, both domestic and agricultural.

“What we have proven is that overall, ag pollution of surface waters is fairly minimal,” says David Orth, coordinator of the Kings River Watershed Coalition, a member of the larger Southern San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition.

That is not to say agriculture is blameless. There have been areas where agricultural pollutants were reaching waterways. However, the widespread monitoring, according to Orth, did not turn up agricultural pollution on the scale many assumed.

(For more, see: Groundwater nitrate issue dumped in agriculture’s lap)

Orth and Parry Klassen, executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, say the most vulnerable areas have been identified and best management practices have been developed to reduce or eliminate pollutant runoff.

“We contacted every grower in the east valley coalition in these vulnerable areas and worked with them to change their farming practices to preclude pollution,” said Klassen. “We have had excellent cooperation.” Orth agreed growers have been cooperative and that has made the program successful.

Surprisingly, these vulnerable areas represented less than half of the farmland contained in these coalitions. For Orth’s group, it was only about 20 percent of the southern San Joaquin Valley. For Klassen, those vulnerable areas represented only about 40 percent of the coalition’s 1.1 million acre area of Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Mariposa counties.

That is the good news part of what is called the California Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. The bad news is that the second phase of that, mitigating groundwater pollution, will likely stretch far beyond the scope of the surface water regulations.

Not only will the groundwater regs impact just about everyone, but there is likely to be a hefty mitigating price tag. The cost to monitor groundwater will be considerably more expensive than the surface water package. And grower compliance with the regulations will likely be more costly. There are also the so-called clean-up costs, which many are saying can be paid by taxing farmers for fertilizer use.

Tipping point for agriculture?

The nitrate issue has also been blown through the roof with the recent release of a UC Davis report, “Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water.” It says more than 95 percent of the nitrate levels in drinking water in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley have come from agriculture.

Orth says the impending groundwater quality program could be the “the tipping point” for California agriculture.

Klassen calls the groundwater element of the irrigated lands program “Piling it on!” Already, California agriculture spends more than $2 billion annually complying with regulations. One crop specific example of that: California citrus growers are burdened with more than $350 per acre in regulatory costs while their counterparts in Texas spend $32 per acre. New groundwater quality regs will only add to that.

Orth said the surface water regs impacted about 25 percent of the farmland in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The Central Valley regional board said the surface water regs impacted 25,000 growers and 5 million acres. Groundwater regs will impact 35,000 growers and more than 7 million acres in the region.

Orth does not believe most growers understand how far reaching the new groundwater rules will be.

The surface discharge regs were successfully mitigated via coalitions where growers assessed themselves about $2 per acre to come under a coalition rather than individually monitoring surface runoff and developing management plans. Individually, it has been estimated that it would cost $10,000 per farm to meet surface water quality regulations.

Orth is fearful that the cost of an individual farm to meet groundwater monitoring and management could be three to five times that.

It was good, Orth and Klassen say, to be part of a coalition during the surface water protection procession. It will be almost imperative to join a coalition for the groundwater phase, they contend.

In fact, coalition enrollment is being re-opened for 120 days starting Nov. 15.

However, even the coalition approach will be more expensive this time around. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board’s program for monitoring groundwater ranges from $4 million to $80 million per year for the Tulare Lake Basin alone, according to Orth. The cost to growers could be up to $189 per acre.

The cost range represents the “devil in the details” of what the Central Valley regional board decides to mandate. This board governs the heart of California’s agriculture from the Oregon border to the southern Kern County line.

Report shortcomings

The coalitions are working with regional boards now to finalize what the groundwater regulatory problem will look like. The first round of proposed well monitoring and reporting was shocking, according to Klassen.

The board wanted growers to monitor nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in wells; and then report to the regional board how much of each was applied to land with specific amounts of irrigation water applied.

“We said no way. Farmers cannot afford to do that,” Klassen says. Eventually, the board decided to focus on the key issue, nitrates in groundwater, according to Klassen.

“We already have a great deal of knowledge of current nitrate levels in drinking water. What we do not have is where that came from. It is from today’s fertilizer practices degrading water quality? Or, is it from what a lot of people are saying — it’s a legacy issue from past farming practices,” said Orth. Some contend the nitrates in the groundwater could be as old as 300 years.

(For more, see: California groundwater nitrate report more about past than present)

“The UC Davis report says 60 percent of the nitrogen applied is going into the groundwater. I do not believe that for a second,” says Klassen, who is a farmer from the Parlier, Calif., area. “Unfortunately, we do not have scientific information to disapprove that.”

However, the report’s shortcoming on that is evident, according to Klassen. One of the fallacies of the UC Davis report equating per acre nitrogen use by dividing fertilizer sales into acreage farming and then deducting the nitrogen in the harvested crop does not take into account fertilizer utilization by woody plants like orchards and vineyards, according to Klassen.

The UC Davis report’s credibility was also challenged at a May State Water Resources Control Board meeting where Dave Puglia, Western Growers senior vice president for state government affairs, called for a peer review of the study.

Among the research not cited in the study were nitrate studies conducted by three other academic organizations. Also cited was the fact that the study contained alleged errors and omissions. For example, more than 5,100 samples were repeated tests of 4,700 wells, indicating some wells were double or triple counted.

Regardless of the UC Davis’ report accuracy, Klassen says the problem of nitrate pollution exists.

Klassen believes the problem can be reasonably addressed by much the same way the surface water issue was resolved, by identifying vulnerable areas and then working on best management plans to efficiently utilize nitrogen and to develop nitrogen budgeting for nitrogen use on each crop based on soil types, yield, and similar factors.

Balance and reason

Orth says rather than focusing on the past, the program should focus on current nitrogen fertilization. “We can develop best management plans for the various commodities now grown on the various soil types,” Orth says. “We need balance and reason with these new regulations for today’s farming practices”

Neither believes it is necessary to have a massive number of expensive monitoring wells.

“We have a fairly good understanding of groundwater in our region. We have maps indicating depths to groundwater,” Klassen said. This coupled with information about soil types will allow coalitions to focus on high vulnerability areas and react accordingly.

Klassen said the dairy nitrate monitoring program set up by the Central Valley board in 2007 would be a good pattern for agriculture.

Rather than have nitrate monitoring wells on all dairies, the regional board agreed to representative monitoring wells where wells are dug on dairies with various manure management systems.

“If the best management practices used on the same style lagoon as you are using results in no nitrates, then all the same style lagoons and best management practices should be cleared,” Klassen says.

“Irrigated ag needs to do the same representative monitoring for specific crops, similar soil conditions and similar practices,” he said.

The debate over what the groundwater plan will look like is expected to come to a head in October when the board tells the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition what it will accept to meet groundwater quality mandates. That is expected to set the pattern for the remainder of the coalitions in the heart of California’s agriculture.

What is certain, according to Klassen, is this will culminate in a mandatory nitrate management for most farms by 2014.

Before then, Klassen said there will be extensive assessment of the problem next year, followed by how nitrate levels will be tracked from now on. The cost of that will only add to the regulatory burden of farming in California. How much is the question right now.