Water Agency gives irrigation discharge program update

By From page A4 | April 18, 2014

An update on the Long Term Irrigated Lands Program Waste Discharge Requirements was given at the April 9 Water Agency board meeting.

Previously, the Water Agency board heard a presentation by the El Dorado County Agricultural Water Quality Corporation on the history and background of the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program and the Pilot Program that was developed and adopted for the El Dorado Subwatershed Coalition.

The presentation on April 9 was made by John Zentner, vice president of the El Dorado County Agricultural Water Quality Management Corporation, and was to provide an overview of decisions made last month by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in which it adopted new Waste Discharge Requirements (Order) to regulate both surface and groundwater quality from waste discharges off irrigated agricultural lands.

The presentation included a summary of the requirements of the new Order, timelines for implementation and the impacts to irrigated agricultural operations in El Dorado County.

Zentner said the local water quality corporation had been formed to comply with the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. Representing some 300 local farmers, it is one of 10 subwatershed groups that comprise the Sacramento Water Quality Coalition representing all irrigated agricultural operations in the Sacramento River Watershed with the exception of rice growers.

Initially the state regulatory program only covered surface water, said Zentner, but groundwater monitoring has since been added to the program.

“This is a big issue down in the valley,” he noted, adding that nitrate levels are so high in some locales that people have to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking and, in some cases, even to bathe.

In El Dorado County, historically there have been two surface water monitoring points with both being in the Apple Hill area, he said. The regional board told them to monitor in other areas and in doing so they found some toxicity. It cost the corporation $50,000 to prove it was not due to agriculture and instead was due to dumping by the Department of Transportation which they paid to clean up. But it still cost the corporation’s members $50,000, he noted. Some residual DDT and e coli has also been detected but the latter is thought to be due to animals.

Zentner said farmers have different options to gain regulatory coverage including joining a coalition group, obtaining coverage as an individual grower under general waste discharge requirements or obtaining an individual permit. But the cost of going the individual route — regardless of the size of an operation — is between $20,000 and $50,000 a year for the monitoring required.

One of the good things they are doing in this county to save their members money is a management practices verification program in which farms are monitored to ensure they are following best management practices. “It has saved a lot of money,” said Zentner, “because it’s in lieu of testing the water.” Noting they do one every five years, he said the program has also generated a lot of good will with the regional water board because they are one of the few counties doing it.

Zentner said the corporation will next have to produce a groundwater quality assessment report with ground water quality requirements posing the biggest potential threat to agriculture in El Dorado County. This is primarily because of the cost of having to prove that farm management practices prevent nitrogen from leaching below the root zone, he added.

In summarizing the changes decided on in March by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Zentner said new Waste Discharge Requirements will require more paperwork and data collection which will require more time and money on the part of farmers. And we may have to start reporting nitrogen use in the same way we do pesticide use today, he noted.

In addition, now everyone has to opt into the program and owners not presently part of the program will have to join and pay back dues.

But Zentner said the good news is they already knew about the surface water monitoring so it was no surprise and the farm evaluation plan doesn’t actually have to be done until next spring.

Zentner noted that administrative costs for the program are also lower than they might have otherwise been.

In 2003, when the program started, farmers paid 12 cents per acre to the state to run it; now it’s 76 cents per acre, although the state legislature wanted to raise the rate to over $1 an acre so more staff could be hired. In this particular instance, farmers got a break when Gov. Jerry Brown actually cut the number of staff recommended for the program.

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

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