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CV-SALTS plan to bring new requirements

Issue Date: October 23, 2019
By Christine Souza
At his Madera County farm, Bill Diedrich checks on technology that restricts fertilizer to only the root zone of each plant when irrigating. This precision-farming technology, Diedrich says, will become more important with adoption of the CV-SALTS plan to limit nitrates and salt in groundwater.
Photo/Christine Souza

Action by the state water board sets in motion a 35-year program of activity and research to address nitrate and salt content in Central Valley groundwater, in order to achieve water-quality objectives.

The plan adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board last week addresses elevated salinity in surface water and groundwater and nitrates in groundwater, and requires farmers and others to develop plans to prevent fertilizer and irrigation runoff from entering groundwater supplies.

In development for about a decade, the plan approved by the water board, known as Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long Term Sustainability or CV-SALTS, applies to the entire Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board Region 5, which stretches from the Oregon border to northern Los Angeles County.

The plan requires farmers to comply with its nitrate- and salinity-control provisions in order to obtain irrigated-lands permits and, in some cases, to provide residents with bottled water or filters until groundwater basins meet state nitrate limits. Farmers may also have to pay into a study that looks at ways of reducing nitrates.

The long-term goal of the plan is to restore aquifers and make groundwater safe, while also ensuring a safe drinking water supply.

California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Kari Fisher described the plan as "a step in the right direction."

"By adopting this program, the State Water Resources Control Board and the regional board recognize the need for a comprehensive, long-term approach to address Central Valley salinity and nitrates that is feasible and sustainable," Fisher said. "Such an approach allows time for technology and research to come up with solutions. That's one of the biggest benefits."

Bill Diedrich, who farms permanent and field crops in Madera and Fresno counties, said developing the CV-SALTS plan "has been a heavy lift and an incredible journey" to arrive at a resolution to water-quality problems.

"The way we have been farming is changing because of the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program that deals with water quality and nitrates," Diedrich said, discussing the program to address runoff from irrigated farmland. "We're really watching our nitrogen fertilization, crop yields and production to make sure that we're not overfertilizing."

Diedrich said he has adopted advanced irrigation technology that incorporates careful application of fertilizers onto his crops, and added that more technology will be key to addressing long-term salt and nitrate issues in the Central Valley.

"Meeting the requirements in the newly adopted plan is going to require a lot of technological inventions through chemistry, energy production and the political willingness to do things that there's going to be a lot of resistance to," said Diedrich, who serves on the San Luis Water District board, which is part of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. "This is going to require water treatment and when you treat water, you create waste and so the question becomes: What will be done with the waste?"

The newly adopted plan will bring additional requirements for some farmers, he said, but added, "the good news is we are going to be able to continue farming."

Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Christina Beckstead said the lengthy process to develop the CV-SALTS plan resulted in "countless hours and millions in expenditures to find compromises that worked for all parties involved."

"We agree that the plan may not be perfect; however, it is a vast improvement over the management of salt and nitrates," Beckstead said. "We know that this is critical to ensure a safe and reliable water source for the health and vitality of the region. Agriculture is committed to implementing a solution for their communities."

Describing the plan for addressing nitrates and salts in the valley as "momentous," Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, said, "We now have a comprehensive plan for nitrate in the Central Valley. We have a path forward on salt—arguably, even a more difficult issue. We have immediate drinking water to those communities that need it and a long-term solution that's required of dischargers for those impacted communities."

Central Valley Salinity Coalition Executive Director Daniel Cozad said the plan was developed with Central Valley communities, farms and businesses in mind, "to keep them in business, while we have time to clean up and fix the problem."

"Agricultural members have been the first members in the coalition," Cozad said. "One thing I learned about farmers is, if you give them a problem and give them a few tools, they're spectacular. Farming is nothing if not problem solving."

Speaking before the state water board last week, Fisher said CFBF would have preferred the board adopt a compliance timeline longer than 35 years, but added, "This is a plausible solution and approach to dealing with salt and nitrates within the valley, and is definitely an improvement over the current approach to regulating salt and nitrates."

Affected growers should be aware, she said, that compliance with CV-SALTS will bring a new layer of requirements that will be folded into the existing Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

"The bottom line is that growers will have to comply with applicable provisions of the CV-SALTS nitrate-control programs and the salinity-control programs as part of their irrigated lands regulatory program permit requirements," Fisher said, adding that some details remain to be resolved, such as how management zones will be formed.

The regional board has one year to revise the basin plan in accordance with the state board resolution, and then bring it back to the state board for final approval. The plan goes to the California Office of Administrative Law and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with final approval expected by 2021.

(Christine Souza 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.

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