Groundwater nitrates have been a concern over the last decade and growers have made much improvement to minimize the problem. But still, new regulations are requiring that growers not make the problem worse.
California Ag Today recently spoke with Dan Munk, a UC Cooperative Extension Fresno County Farm Advisor, about the topic. He specializes in irrigation crop nutritional management and cotton production systems. He explained that when water leaves the root zone, it takes away salts and nitrates.
The issue is that irrigated agriculture is always going to have some water leaving the root zone simply to leach salts.
“And when you leach salts, you take away with that water, along with something like nitrates. So that’s part of the system,” Munk said.
“And so what we can do in agriculture is limit those losses and try to be more efficient because it still makes us more efficient in that we spend less money on fertilizers that way,” he said.
“However, there’s always going to be some losses to … systems over time, and I think that’s the best we can do,” Munk said.
He said that many of the nitrates in the ground water are due to legacy issues. When growers had different irrigation systems or when growers had different access to water.
“Today, we’re applying a lot less water, much more uniformly and have been for many years. Things really have changed in terms of the amount of nitrates that are going below that root zone and into the groundwater,” Munk explained. “It is much less today.”
For more help in understanding the problem of nitrates in the groundwater: www.cvsalinity.org
WGA’s Puglia on Sacramento’sMuddled Potable Groundwater Policy
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
Many residents in California’s agricultural regions rely on groundwater from private wells rather than from municipal supplies for clean drinkable water. Test results on many of these wells have revealed excess nitrates and other dangerous elements. Indisputably, all state residents deserve clean potable water.
Who is Responsible?
Cris Carrigan, director of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Office of Enforcement, issued confidential letters to growers in two regions, Salinas Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin, demanding these farmers supply potable water to the citizens in need.
“The letter represents a legal proceeding by the Office of Enforcement,” said Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association (WGA). “Why they desire to keep it confidential is something they would have to answer, but I think sending that many letters to a community of farmers is a pretty good guarantee that it won’t remain confidential.”
The first letters went to growers in Salinas one year ago. “Although there has been some advancement of the discussions between some of the growers in the Salinas Valley and the Office of Enforcement,” Puglia said, “I don’t think it’s been put to bed yet.”
Which Groundwater Supply?
“It’s critical to distinguish between entire communities in need of [municipal] drinking water assistance and domestic well users whose wells have nitrate issues. Those are two different things.”
“It’s important to keep that distinction. The state has spent money and is advancing programs to provide clean drinking water to small community water systems that don’t have that capability, and that’s appropriate,” Puglia clarified. “That is not what we’re talking about here.”
“We’re talking about a smaller number of individuals whose domestic wells are contaminated with nitrates. These are people not served by a municipal system.”
“Again, these are people who depend upon wells located on property that has been previously used for agriculture, and the groundwater has nitrate levels that exceed state limits. We are talking about one to maybe five household connections serviced by one well, so it is a very small service of water.”
“This is a much smaller universe than we’re accustomed to talking about when we talk about nitrate levels in drinking water. It often conjures up the image of municipal water systems that [cannot be treated.] That is a different problem entirely, and the state has made some advances in tackling that problem and needs to do more. This is something of a smaller nature, but the cost-impacts could be very significant.”
“There are different ways of providing replacement drinking water for some period of time until those folks can be connected to municipal water service. That really should be the objective here; if a domestic well is that far gone, we should get these folks connected to a municipal water service,” Puglia said.
The bigger question is what should the state’s replacement water policy be for individuals whose wells are contaminated with nitrates? Puglia said, “The state of California and the federal government encouraged farmers to apply nitrogen for decades to produce something we all need—nutritious food preferably from American soil.
“Now, with the benefit of scientific advancement, we discover that much of that nitrogen was able to leach below the root zone and enter the groundwater supply.”
Groundwater Policy Debate
“This was not an intentional act of malice to pollute groundwater. These were farmers doing [best practices] to provide food as they were coached and educated by our universities and by our state and federal governments.” Puglia said the state looks at this problem as if it were a case of industrial pollution and growers should be punished.
“That is fundamentally not what this is. I think it’s really important for the state of California, for Governor Jerry Brown, and for his administration, to stand back, take a hard look at this problem and differentiate it from industrial pollution, because it is not the same. They need to go back to the SWRCB’s recommendations for best solutions,” Puglia declared.
“Three or four years ago, the Water Board recommended to the legislature the most preferable policy solution for the public good was to have everyone chip in for clean water. This is just like how all of us pay a small charge on our phone bill for the California Lifeline Service for folks who can’t afford phone service,” Puglia said.
“If we have a connection to a water system, we would all pay a small charge on our water bill to generate enormous amounts of revenue that the state could use to fix not only nitrate contamination but all of the other contaminants in the state’s drinking water supplies. Many of those contaminants are far more hazardous than nitrate, such as Chromium-6 (a carcinogen), arsenic and other toxins that are industrial pollutants, that pose a much greater health risk.”
Puglia explained that in this case, the state bypassed its own preferred ‘public goods charge‘ policy option with regard to water. The state bypassed its second preferred policy option, which is a small tax on food. The state bypassed its third preferred policy option, a fertilizer tax. “State officials from Governor Brown’s office went straight to the policy option the State Water Board said it did not prefer, which is to target farmers.”
Complex Contamination Needs a Holistic Solution
Now the big question is who ought to bear the burden of paying for that solution, both on a temporary basis and then on a permanent basis? Puglia said, “The state itself and the State Water Board itself already projected three policy options that would be preferable.”
“These options would have spread the cost very broadly among Californians through three different mechanisms, seemingly in recognition of the fact that farmers were doing the right thing for decades in growing food using fertilizer. Fertilizer that contains nitrogen has been essential to growing food since the dawn of humankind.”
Puglia said that nitrate contamination of drinking water is a legitimate problem in California. However, it pales in comparison to the presence of industrial pollutants in drinking water supplies that are highly carcinogenic and highly toxic. Such water sources throughout southern California and parts of the Bay Area can no longer be used.
Rather than looking at this holistically, Puglia said, Governor Brown’s administration has focused exclusively on one contaminant, nitrate, that affects a relatively small number of Californians and is targeting one small group of Californians to pay for replacement water. A holistic perspective would determine that California has a severe problem with its drinking water due to contamination by different toxic substances that vary in different regions of the state and that affect many Californians diversely.
“The obvious way to ensure people have safe, clean drinking water,” Puglia said, “is a broad solution, like a fee on water connections that we all pay. And that has been, in fact, the SWRCB’s preferred solution.”
“And, yet, we have made no effort as a state to move that policy forward. Instead, we are defaulting to running over a small group of people who are relatively defenseless, politically.”
“More importantly some people in the Governor’s Office, as well as leaders and secretaries in the Governor’s administration, including Matt Rodriquez, secretary, CalEPA, expressed some agreement with our position and sympathy with our predicament. Yet the letters continued to go out,” Puglia said.
Water Use Efficiency Grants: Beneficial or Double Jeopardy for California Farming? Or both?
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
Through a competitive joint pilot grant program, the Agricultural Water Use Efficiency and State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) jointly intend to demonstrate the potential multiple benefits of conveyance enhancements combined with on-farm agricultural water use efficiency improvements and greenhouse gas reductions.
The grant funding provided in this joint program is intended to address multiple goals including:
Water use efficiency, conservation and reduction
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction
Groundwater Protection, and
Sustainability of agricultural operations and food production
Are these competitive grants promoted by DWR and CDFA providing financial support for further compliance or insulting to farmers who have already met and exceeded these stockpiling regulations? Or both?
I would like to address each goal, one by one.
Water Use Efficiency
I challenge DWR and CDFA to find one California farmer who is using water inefficiently or without regard to conservation. Grant or no grant, many farmers in the state have lost most of their contracted surface water deliveries due to the Endangered Species Act, which serves to save endangered species, an important goal we all share, but does so at any cost.
In addition, DWR is now threatening to take 40 percent of the surface water from the Tuolumne River and other tributaries of the San Joaquin River from February 1 to June 30, every year, to increase flows to the Delta to help save the declining smelt and salmon. This will severely curtail water deliveries to the Modesto Irrigation District (MID)and Turlock Irrigation District (TID)—population centers as well as critical farm areas.
This proposal, which disregards legal landowner water rights and human need, would force MID and TID to dedicate 40 percent of surface water flows during the defined time period every year, with no regulatory sunset, for beneficial fish and wildlife uses and salinity control. The proposal disregards other scientifically acknowledged stressors such as predatory nonnative non-native striped bass and largemouth bass, partially treated sewage from Delta cities, and, according to the Bay Delta Fish & Wildlife Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region, invasive organisms, exotic species of zooplankton and a voracious plankton-eating clam in the Delta from foreign ships that historically dumped their ballast in San Francisco waters.
While many farmers have fallowed their farmland, other farmers across the state have resorted to reliance on groundwater to keep their permanent crops (trees and vines) alive. The new DWR proposal to divert 40 percent of MID and TID surface water will force hundreds of growers in this region—the only groundwater basin in the Valley that is not yet critically overdrafted—to use more groundwater.
In a joint statement, MID and TID said, “Our community has never faced a threat of this proportion. MID and TID have continued to fight for the water resource that was entrusted to us 129 years ago.”
Ironically, farmers want to reduce their groundwater needs because groundwater has always functioned in the state as a water savings bank for emergency use during droughts and not as a primary source of irrigation. But massive non-drought related federal and state surface water cutbacks have forced farmers to use more groundwater.
Golden State farmers are doing everything possible not to further elevate nitrates in their groundwater. Some nitrate findings left by farmers from generations ago are difficult to clean up.
But the DWR and CFA grant wants California agriculture to do more!
Sustainability of Agricultural Operations and Food Production
Virtually, no one is more sustainable than a multi-generational farmer. Each year, family farmers improve their land in order to produce robust crops, maintain their livelihoods, enrich the soil for the long term, and fortify the health and safety of their agricultural legacy for future generations.
California farmers will continue to do all they can to improve irrigation methods and track their crop protection product use.
And so, I ask again, is this beneficial or double jeopardy for California farming? Or both?
One of the best ways to overcome the challenges that arise in farming, is ag collaboration with countries that have already found solutions to the issues we face.
Karen Ross, secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture, led a delegation of Californians to the Netherlands last month, “for shared discussion on all of the ways we can collaborate on climate-smart agriculture,” Ross said, “including water-use efficiency and improved fertilizer use.”
“In particular, the Netherlands has a shared issue with us—nitrates in groundwater—and what we can do to improve our water management and fertilizer management to avoid that. They’re doing some interesting things with greenhouse technologies and salt-tolerant crops, so we saw some real opportunities. We had university people with us to do some trials here.”
Ross’s group was able to visit Wageningen UR (University & Research centre), Netherlands’ prominent agriculture university. She said between the University of California, Davis and the Dutch university, “we found ways that we can collaborate together to find the solutions that are not just about here in California,” Ross said. “If we can solve these problems on water-use efficiency, desalinating brackish water, and salt-tolerant crop issues in California, we will make a contribution to solving these problems on a global basis.”
Ross’s team also visited many farmers, primarily of specialty crops. Ross commented, “We saw some of their digester technology, which we know is one of the solutions for our dairies. We really want to advance that technology, make it affordable and provide value to our dairies.”