Programs pursue groundwater quality goals

Issue Date: November 27, 2019
By Christine Souza

Pilot programs in two regions of the San Joaquin Valley will serve as templates for other areas developing plans to prevent fertilizer and irrigation runoff from entering groundwater supplies. The programs will also create plans to provide clean drinking water to disadvantaged communities.

The Turlock and Kings River groundwater subbasins are among six in the Central Valley designated as high priority due to nitrate levels that exceed 10 milligrams per liter. Affected stakeholders in the two subbasins are using grant funds from the State Water Resources Control Board for pilot programs to develop plans for compliance.

Wayne Zipser, a director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, which works with irrigators in Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties, described the Turlock Subbasin Management Zone Pilot Program as "a proactive approach before this regulation even happens."

"It has really given us a head start, and I think farmers are now going to start participating in a proactive way in trying to get ahead of this so that the community benefits," said Zipser, who also serves as executive director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

Zipser said state water board action in October to incorporate a Central Valley-wide Salt and Nitrate Control Program into the regional water quality board irrigated lands regulatory program permits "gives us 35 years to come up with plans and technology to help alleviate problems with nitrogen fertilizer going past the root zone into groundwater."

With grant funding from the state board, people overseeing priority 1 areas for nitrate control in the Turlock and Kings River subbasins are working with consultants to develop what is needed for compliance, such as preliminary management zone proposals. Initial work, which began about a year ago, has included outreach with stakeholders, development of maps, assessing groundwater conditions, and crafting an early action plan and solutions for providing clean drinking water.

The Salt and Nitrate Control Program offers two avenues for compliance for permitted discharges of nitrate to groundwater: an individual permitting approach and another one where permittees working collectively are regulated under a management zone.

Parry Klassen, executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, said people will likely be notified in early 2020 "that they either have to go an individual route and prove they don't contaminate with nitrates, or else join a management zone." When the basin plan is amended by the Central Valley regional water board next year, he said, "everybody that has a WDR (waste discharge requirement)—ag through the Irrigated Lands Coalition; dairies through their permit; food processors; wastewater treatment plants—anybody that has a permit from the water board is going to get a letter telling them they either need to do an individual approach or get into a management zone."

After priority management zones begin, Klassen said, stakeholders have roughly a year to submit a plan to the water board addressing the drinking water component. The long-term solution on addressing nitrates must also be built into the plan, he said.

Stanislaus County dairy farmer Justin Gioletti, who is taking part in developing the Turlock management zone, said, "Our goals include trying to find affordable, cost-effective ways to provide clean drinking water to people that do not have that currently within our zone, and comply with the regulations with regard to nitrates in groundwater."

Emphasizing the importance of participating in the pilot program, Gioletti added, "There's also representation from all kinds of farmers, irrigated lands programs, cities—anybody who's a discharger in the region, it's important to participate in this."

In the Kings River subbasin, the Alta Irrigation District Area Management Zone Pilot Study includes Tulare and Fresno counties plus a small section of Kings County. Early stages of the process have included identifying stakeholders and providing outreach. In addition, Charlotte Gallock, coordinator for the Kings River Water Quality Coalition, said stakeholders are developing an early action plan, "which determines how you're going to provide people with nitrate-impacted wells drinking water until you find a long-term solution."

"We want to allow anyone who is interested to apply for any kind of replacement water programs," said Gallock, who is also director of water resources for the Kings River Conservation District. "We would come out and test their well, and we also looked at having fill stations that we would utilize."

She said people in the pilot projects hope "that others will take from the lessons that we've learned thus far in how to approach this."

"Farmers should think through how they can participate and, if they're involved in their water quality coalition, that would be the avenue for them to participate directly," Gallock said.

The October action by the state water board set 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, known as Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long Term Sustainability or CV-SALTS, addresses elevated salinity in surface water and groundwater and nitrates in groundwater. Compliance with the Salt and Nitrate Control Program brings a new layer of requirements that will be folded into the existing Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

The regional board has one year to revise the basin plan in accordance with the state board resolution. 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.

Special Reports



Special Issues

Special Sections