State water board fails to adopt new forestland rules

Issue Date: December 21, 2011
By Kate Campbell

Changes that had been proposed to water quality regulations for national forestland in California failed last week to get the votes needed for adoption by the State Water Resources Control Board. Agricultural groups say the proposed changes could have greatly complicated logging and grazing activities on national forests within California if they had been adopted.

The California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen's Association said the proposed "nonpoint source waiver of waste discharge requirements" was unnecessary, because it would have duplicated federal regulations.

"Fortunately, as a result of efforts by CFBF, CCA and various recreational-use groups, the water board rejected the proposal," said Danny Merkley, CFBF water resources director. "Instead, we'll be working with the board staff as they investigate alternatives as directed by the water board."

The water board is the lead agency under the California Environmental Quality Act for water quality and had developed a draft, statewide conditional waiver of waste discharge requirements following the U.S. Forest Service update of its Water Quality Management Handbook.

"It's important to recognize that activities on U.S. Forest Service lands are already highly regulated," said Elisa Noble, CFBF environment and public lands director. "The U.S. Forest Service, the agency that manages national forests, already protects water quality under both state and federal law through its Water Quality Management Handbook and associated best management practices."

The state water board has approved this handbook since 1981.

Noble said an evaluation of the best-management practices has shown that they successfully monitor and protect water quality. Any additional monitoring or reporting required by the state would have been extremely cumbersome, she said.

"And, even without the proposed waiver, the state and regional boards still have enforcement authority that can be used to address problem areas, should any be found," Noble said. "This is in addition to Forest Service enforcement authority or its ability to address water quality problems."

The state's draft regulations had been under development for more than two years. Although agricultural groups worked closely with state and federal agencies to refine the proposed rules and reduce regulatory overlap, agricultural policy experts described the proposal presented to the water board last week as "deeply flawed."

"We've advocated for an alternate, simplified state regulatory proposal that would provide effective environmental protection, while limiting potential impacts to our members," Noble said.

The USFS, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administers more than 20.8 million acres of national forestland across California, with about 75 percent of that land in timber.

Under federal law, which mandates multiple uses of public forestland and sustained production, protecting water quality has been identified by the agencies as the most valuable commodity to be produced from these federal lands, and it is recognized as among the highest USFS environmental priorities.

"However, we contend that the grossly overstocked condition of California's USFS lands is the largest single cause of compromised water quality and quantity," Noble said in a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board.

"For a variety of reasons, USFS lands in California have not been properly managed for a number of years," she said. "As a result, we have ever-increasing fuel loads, more catastrophic fires, and resulting erosion and landscape conversion. It's a vicious cycle that greatly impairs water quality."

Unmanaged tree and brush growth has also restricted a vast quantity of the state's water supply, which would otherwise be available for use, she stressed.

"We were pleased that the board recognized the problems with the draft waiver and voted not to adopt it at this time," said Jack Rice, CFBF associate counsel. "There are much better solutions for environmental protection that do not add unnecessary, inefficient and duplicative layers of regulation."

He said Farm Bureau is committed to working with the USFS, water board and other national forest users to find these solutions to "ensure water quality on our national forests is appropriately addressed."

Merkley said Farm Bureau will work with members of the water board staff to evaluate the current proposed regulations and ensure that the best available science is used in the development of future regulations.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.