“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” beloved American novelist Mark Twain is said to have once wrote. Having grown up in California's central valley, I witnessed first-hand the severity of drought, the debate over water transfers and the strain on water supplies as what was once “ag country” increasingly became the now cliché “ag-urban interface.”

For those outside agriculture, it would seem antithetical for the ag industry to address such critical issues as water quality and quantity in a vacuum. But as some would attest, there are many issues and many segments of the industry working every day, often independently, to address them. Fortunately, as agriculture becomes more and more isolated in the golden state's political and business scheme, a common sense approach is beginning to blossom. The California Water Quality Coalition (CWQC) is a case in point.

In 1999, legislation was passed, giving California's Regional Water Quality Control Board the daunting deadline for reviewing waste discharge permit waivers that would otherwise end in December 2002. In the simplest terms, the waivers had been granted in 1982 by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to 23 categories of discharges, including two from irrigated lands: irrigation return waters and storm water.

In order to keep the waivers, impacted dischargers, such as agriculture, construction and other businesses, would be required to meet special conditions, showing that waters flowing off their respective properties posed no threat to the environmental health of any waterway. For California growers, this meant utilizing Best Management Practices to prevent pollution from nutrients, crop protection products and other inputs. Ongoing monitoring programs, fines for non-compliance and other methods were built into the waivers to assure that business was not being given a “free pass” to simply let their “waste” water flow unmonitored.

Work with agencies

To address the issue of the upcoming waiver sunset, the board adopted a policy to work with agencies and affected parties to establish a monitoring program related to discharges from irrigated land.

From an outsider's viewpoint, a monitoring program makes perfect sense: create a method of testing return flow/storm waters; and fine and/or revoke the waiver from any businesses that fail to meet them. But as with anything in life, we all wish it were that simple. Existing monitoring programs at the federal and state levels and voluntary industry programs would need to be taken into consideration in order to prevent duplication and more bureaucracy. Moreover, where would water samples be taken, who would analyze them and how, and how would such a program be paid for?

As impacted segments of the ag industry began to review the board's plan, it quickly became apparent how many interests would be affected: water agencies, growers, the plant health industry, and others. With all the expertise, the water board would surely have been inundated with dozens of comments from dozens of ag organizations all resulting in potentially the same impression from the board: if agriculture cannot collectively summarize their concerns and agree how these waivers should be addressed, why should we do that for them? Thankfully, agriculture agreed to do it for themselves.

The CWQC formed early last year to address the waiver issues and work together to find solutions. Comprised of a broad range of interests, including the Association of California Water Agencies, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Grape and Tree Fruit League, California Rice Industry Association, the California Plant Health Association and others, CWQC has worked diligently with the board and other interested parties on development of a monitoring effort. From a grower standpoint, the coalition is attempting to coordinate a monitoring program that reflects how growers, ag business and others are using best management practices to maintain water quality. Simply put, when it comes to addressing a complex issue with broad implications, agriculture is learning that more is more where collective thinking is concerned.

So where is the process of creating a solution to the waivers and monitoring? To date, CWQC is finalizing recommendations to the board for a comprehensive monitoring program that focuses on two important concepts: an effective, streamlined monitoring system and continuation of the waiver program. The proposal is scheduled to be brought before the board sometime in March 2002.

Perhaps the CWQC can be a model for effective issues management, particularly when it comes to a debate on water quality and agriculture. Twain understood the need work cooperatively. About the American work ethic in general, he surmised, “…the ruin of any work is a divided interest. Concentrate-concentrate. One thing at a time.”