Groundwater Policy Confusion at State Level

WGA’s Puglia on Sacramento’s Muddled Potable Groundwater Policy

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Groundwater Quality

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.”

Dave Puglia, executive vice president, Western Growers Association, groundwater
Dave Puglia, executive vice president, Western Growers Association

 

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.”

Replacement Water

“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.”

Irrigated Field in Salinas, groundwater
Irrigated Field in Salinas

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.

Talk, Merely Talk

Farmer Hears Plenty of Talk But Sees No Action on Water Management

Erik Hansen
Erik Hansen, Legacy Farmer in Kings County

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Deputy Editor

Erik Hansen, a big legacy farmer down in the Tulare Lake Basin in Kings County, is quite frustrated by how the state’s freshwater has been managed this year. “The most important thing,” he said, “is that people realize politicians in this state do not have your best interests in mind when it comes to how the water is run. We have infrastructure that is out of date and needs to be improved, but they are not even using the existing infrastructure at the full capacity it should be used, even though we are in a water emergency.”

“Now there is just nobody who can tell me that that’s OK,” stated Hansen. “Plenty of people can talk around it; they can say, ‘environmental this’ and ‘environmental that.’ But in the end, we need to take a very hard look at how these decisions are being made at the top levels—where people should be losing their jobs in a big way. ‘Starting from the governor having to explain—How do you have a water emergency; yet your appointments at the State Water Resources Control Board are not running the water as they should?

Hansen expects water mismanagement will continue and worsen until the California public holds their feet to the fire. “It is a power move,” Hansen declared.”They are able to hold off one of our most precious resources in the state, and currently two thirds of the state is suffering for it. Northern California has plenty of water, and that is where all the votes are. They forgot about the southern two thirds, and there are plenty of people here who are not happy about it.”

Hansen recounted, “There are higher bills in just about every municipality. Wells are running dry. Certain areas of the state are completely dry to the point where they require 250 gallon totes of water by truck delivery. This is unsustainable, and hopefully the politicians in Northern California can understand that word.”

Farmers Hit With New Regulatory Fee

Source: The Porterville Recorder

Farmers who are already reeling from a lack of water to irrigate their crops this summer are being hit with an annual acreage fee to meet a mandated program to monitor water runoff from irrigated lands.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in September of 2013 adopted new waste discharge requirements to protect ground and surface water from irrigated agricultural discharges for the Tulare Lake Basin area. That led to a plan to monitor groundwater and what impacts irrigation has on that groundwater.

Growers who irrigate agricultural lands for commercial purposes within the Tulare Lake Basin area must comply, but they do have a choice. They can either deal individually and directly with the Water Board, or they can join one of several regional coalitions that have been formed to assist growers in meeting all the requirements.

In the Porterville area, that coalition is the Tule Basin Water Quality Coalition. There is also a coalition in Kern County, as well as the Kaweah Basin Water Quality Coalition to the north. Some growers who have irrigated lands in both, will have to sign up with both, said Tulare County Supervisor and citrus grower Allen Ishida.

The deadline to sign up is rapidly approaching. Growers must sign up with their local coalition by Aug. 4, or they will be stuck dealing directly with the Water Board and having to monitor their groundwater on their own.

“If you received the letter, you better pay it,” stressed Ishida, explaining that monitoring even just a 10-acre plot could cost several thousand dollars a year.

The plan was put into place to improve the quality of groundwater, but Ishida said “They’re regulating without the base science.”

He contends the cause of nitrates in the ground, which is very common in Tulare County, has not been pinned down and that the Water Board is incorrectly blaming farmers. “We’re not the only ones contributing to high nitrates,” said Ishida, agreeing that some nitrates naturally occur, but no one has determined how much is natural.

David DeGroot, who is with 4 Creeks, an engineering firm working for the Tule Basin Coalition, said the only farming operations exempt from this latest order are dairy farmers because they are already under an irrigated management plan.

He said the basin began monitoring surface water in 2003 and now that has been extended to water pumped from the underground.

Farmers got the Water Board to agree to the coalition idea. “Rather than do this individually, maybe we can form a coalition to do the work,” said DeGroot of the idea. “It is a lot more cost-effective.”

The coalition will handle all the monitoring and reporting, which DeGroot said is extensive. Also, it will deal with the Water Board.

The cost for the Tule Basin Coalition is $5 per acre of irrigated land and a $100 participation fee. Both are annual costs. DeGroot and Ishida said the cost for the Kaweah Basin is higher. DeGroot said having to deal with the Water Board is much more expensive.

If a person ignores the order, then there are hefty fines. DeGroot also said if a grower misses the Aug. 4 deadline, they are prohibited from signing up later unless the Water Board grants them permission. Either way, not signing up by Aug. 4 will mean the grower will have to deal with the Water Board, and probably face a fine for not signing up.

According to the state, the Tulare Lake Basin Plan identifies the greatest long-term problem facing the Basin as the increase in salinity in groundwater. Because of the closed nature of the Tulare Lake Basin, there is little subsurface outflow. Thus salts accumulate within the Basin due to the importation and evaporative use of water. A large portion of this increase is due to the intensive use of soil and water resources by irrigated agriculture.

However, the order covers the entire San Joaquin Valley. DeGroot said the total acreage of the Tule Basin is 600,000 acres, of which 350,000 aces are irrigated ag land. He said basically the boundaries are roughly Avenue 196 on the north and the Kern County line on the south, the foothills on the east and the Tulare/Kings county line on the west.

The Water Board said the order requires “the implementation of management practices to achieve compliance with applicable water quality objectives and requiring the prevention of nuisance. The Order requires implementation of a monitoring and reporting program to determine effects of discharges on water quality and the effectiveness of management practices designed to comply with applicable water quality objectives.”

DeGroot said the initial objective is to summarize conditions in a basin. “Once those are approved, then we’ll go out and start monitoring wells,” he said. The plan is to test a well every nine sections.

So far, DeGroot said the sign-ups have gone well, but they know a lot of landowners have held off. As of late last week, he estimated 65 percent of farmers have joined the coalition.

JUST IN: UC Davis’ Preliminary Findings on Drought Impact in Central Valley

Source Office of Public Affairs

Photo Source-Aquafornia

California’s drought impact will be a severe blow to Central Valley irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year and could cost the industry $1.7 billion and cause more than 14,500 workers to lose their jobs, according to preliminary results of a new study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Researchers estimated that Central Valley irrigators would receive only two-thirds of their normal river water deliveries this year because of the drought.

The preliminary analysis represents the first socio-economic forecast of this year’s drought, said lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.

“We wanted to provide a foundation for state agricultural and water policymakers to understand the drought impact on farmers and farm communities,” Howitt said.

The Central Valley is the richest food-producing region in the world. Much of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown on the region’s 7 million acres of irrigated farmland.

The center plans to release a more comprehensive report of the drought’s economic impact on the state’s irrigated agriculture this summer.

The analysis was done at the request of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which co-funded the research, along with the University of California.

“These estimates will help the state better understand the economic impacts of the drought, ” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The research confirms where emergency drought assistance will be needed most, and efforts are already underway.”

The UC Davis researchers used computer models and the latest estimates of State Water Project, the federal Central Valley Project and local water deliveries, plus groundwater pumping capacities to forecast the economic effects of this year’s drought.

The analysis predicted several severe impacts for the current growing season, including:

▪Reduced surface water deliveries of 6.5 million acre-feet of water, or 32.5 percent of normal water use by Central Valley growers. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, or enough water for about two California households for a year.

▪ Fallowing of an additional 410,000 acres, representing 6 percent of irrigated cropland in the Central Valley.

▪ The loss of an estimated 14,500 seasonal and full-time jobs. About 6,400 of these jobs are directly involved in crop production.

▪ A total cost of $1.7 billion to the Central Valley’s irrigated farm industry this year, including about $450 million in additional costs of groundwater pumping.

▪ About 60 percent of the economic losses will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Lake Basin.

Growers are expected to replace much of the loss in project water deliveries with groundwater, California’s largest source of water storage during drought years, said co-author Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Without access to groundwater, this year’s drought would be truly devastating to farms and cities throughout California,” Lund said.

The additional pumping will cost an estimated $450 million and still leave a shortage of 1.5 million acre-feet of irrigation water, about 7.5 percent of normal irrigation water use in the Central Valley, according to the forecast.

While the current drought is expected to impose major hardships on many farmers, small communities and the environment, it should not threaten California’s overall economy, Lund said.

Agriculture today accounts for less than 3 percent of the state’s $1.9 trillion a year gross domestic product.Other authors on the report are UC Davis agricultural economist Josue Medellin-Azuara and Duncan MacEwan of the ERA Economic consulting firm in Davis.