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Commentary: Patience will help us achieve success on water quality

Issue Date: May 25, 2011
By Danny Merkley
The Central Coast is one region where water regulators are rewriting agricultural water quality plans.
Photo/Bob Johnson
Danny Merkley

As regional water quality boards have undertaken rewrites of water quality programs intended to regulate runoff from irrigated agriculture, those of us who represent farmers and ranchers find ourselves struggling against a series of misconceptions that surround the programs. We must address those misperceptions, to assure that the programs achieve their goal of enhancing water quality in ways that make practical sense on farms and ranches.

1. The water quality programs provide a waiver to farms and ranches.

This misperception is based on history that is now outdated. Prior to 1999, water quality regulators issued more than 40 waivers for activities including irrigated agriculture, forestry operations and other "non-point" sources of runoff. Then came legislation that phased out those waivers as of 2003, at which time regional water boards could adopt one of three options: They could regulate runoff under general waste-discharge requirements, through a conditional waiver or a conditional prohibition.

State and regional water boards generally adopted conditional waivers for irrigated agriculture, which may be renewed every five years under certain conditions. As a result, those programs no longer qualify as a "waiver." Rather, each is a regulatory program with requirements for compliance. The conditions include the performance of an individual, group or watershed-based monitoring. The monitoring requirements must verify the adequacy and effectiveness of the program's conditions.

Each of the nine regional water boards in the state has adopted or initiated a process to adopt some level of regulation for irrigated agriculture. Some are region-wide, while others focus on specific areas of the region considered to pose a higher threat to water quality. One example is the conditional prohibition established to implement the total maximum daily load for sediment discharges from irrigated agriculture in Imperial County within the Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality Control Board. Through the leadership of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, farmers have been able to meet and exceed requirements to reduce sediment coming from irrigated fields.

2. The agricultural water quality programs are voluntary programs.

A farmer or rancher meeting the criteria set forth by a regional water board that has adopted a water quality program for irrigated agriculture must either enroll in the program or have a general waste discharge permit from the board.

Each regional water board has taken a different approach to developing and adopting agricultural water quality programs. Some have been inclusive, cooperative and collaborative, working with farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations. Others have taken a more traditional enforcement or command-and-control approach.

With non-point source programs such as these, the environment is less controlled and more volatile. These programs demand cooperation and collaboration between regulators and those who must comply with the regulations, to meet the desired result of protecting and improving water quality.

Since the first conditional waivers were adopted in 2003, we have seen success and failure depending on the path a regional water board has chosen to pursue. Regulators should ask themselves if they wish to develop programs that look "tough" to the public, or if they wish to develop a program that will help them meet their responsibility to truly improve water quality.

3. The existing approach isn't working, so more stringent regulations are needed.

Farmers and ranchers involved in the agricultural water quality programs have seen significant progress through monitoring and developing responses to monitoring results.

Regulation for "point source" discharges such as municipal wastewater treatment plants were the first to be addressed by the water boards, and have been developed and refined over decades to show positive results. Non-point source programs such as those for irrigated agriculture require even more time and patience. These programs must first identify impacts to water quality and the sources of those impacts through monitoring, and then develop and implement management practices to address those impacts. Implement too many corrective measures at once, and you do not know what practices caused results. Practices and actions implemented in one year may not produce the same results under different conditions in another year. It takes years of replication to identify successful corrective measures.

Several regional water boards are in the process of readopting their water quality programs for irrigated agriculture, with new or additional requirements. The Central Valley and the Central Coast regional water boards are currently in the process of developing a long-term water quality program or renewing a "waiver" with additional conditions. Because groundwater quality is even more difficult to manage, and even more difficult and time-consuming to see results, even more patience and careful attention to program development is necessary.

In both of these regions, farmers and ranchers must educate regional water board members and staff about farming practices that are not often understood by those who have never had to produce a crop or carefully move water across a field.

Everyone involved in these discussions—regulators, farmers and ranchers, environmental advocacy groups and other stakeholders—must remain patient. Patience does not come naturally to most of us, but we must avoid hasty judgments as we learn and understand how to protect water quality while feeding the world.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He 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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