San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Water program's depth at issue; Chairman of quality control board wants to explore expanding discharge enforcement to ground water

Fresno Bee - August 05, 2005
By Dennis Pollock

Water program's depth at issue; Chairman of quality control board wants to explore expanding discharge enforcement to ground water

Fresno Bee 8/5/05

By Dennis Pollock, staff writer

Regulators of a state program that deals with pollution from irrigated farmland will begin a discussion today on a policy change that could significantly broaden enforcement, especially in the Valley.

In an e-mail to members of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and others, Chairman Bob Schneider said he plans at today's meeting in Sacramento to ask the board's staff to consider whether discharges into ground water should be included in the program.

The 3-year-old program now applies to those who discharge into surface water, not into the water below.

Considerable controversy has arisen over who does or does not discharge.

"To date, the [Irrigated Lands Conditional Waiver Program] has not included ground water," Schneider writes. "This has created confusion over the issue of who is a discharger, particularly in the sandy loamy soils in the San Joaquin Valley. Some farmers have asserted that they have no surface runoff from either their irrigated water or from surface water and that all water is percolated into the soil."

Frustrated with what they say is a lack of clarity in the state's enforcement actions, Valley farmers and industry leaders said broadening the definition will only further muddy the picture.

Kenneth Landau, the board's assistant executive officer, emphasized that the ground-water issue "is not an agenda item, and it's not a formalized discussion. Board members can bring it up, but they can't have a deliberation."

Schneider could not be reached to comment Thursday. Another board member, Al Brizard, said any discussion of the ground-water issue would be brief and that any action could be years away.

A retired farmer living in Groveland, Brizard said he understands frustration among growers faced with the relatively new regulations after decades of not facing such controls: "Sometimes we don't have answers yet."

The dispute over whether a farm's irrigation water runs off the property is particularly acute in the Valley where rainfall levels are low and the farms are often far removed from surface water.

Landau said he believes the board has given "very clear guidance" on what it means to be a discharger of waste on irrigated land.

"If the person is in an area that floods, it meets that criteria," he said. "Some may feel you're a discharger only if you have big pipes carrying the water away, but it can be accidental, brought about by rain."

Dave Orth, who is on a steering committee for a coalition of growers addressing the runoff issue in the South Valley, disputes the idea that definitions have been spelled out in detail.

"We have struggled with a lack of clarity," said Orth, who is also general manager of the Kings River Conservation District. "We're becoming increasingly frustrated with the regional board and its staff.

"Their presumption is that all farmers are guilty and that coalitions must take action to help the farmers correct the problem. Our position is that there aren't always problems and not all farmers are guilty. These definitional problems have existed from Day One."

Liz Kanter, a spokeswoman for the state Water Resources Control Board, said growers "have been fantastic" in their efforts to address the issue of water pollution, particularly through a coalition system that includes thousands of farmers.

She acknowledges that some informational meetings involving board representatives, agricultural commissioners, growers and other "stakeholders" across the state have turned contentious.

"It's OK to disagree," she said.

Kanter said answers to many questions, including who is a discharger, can be found on the Web site

Parry Klassen, a Selma farmer and executive director of the Coalition for Urban-Rural Environmental Stewardship, said the Web site definition "is not specific enough. It's a confusing definition that has nothing I can take out to my peach orchard in terms of an exact definition of whether I discharge in a dry climate."

He believes low rainfall in the Valley, coupled with the fact that farms may be miles from any surface water, accounts for less likelihood of runoff than in other parts of the water board's vast region, ranging from the state's border with Oregon to Bakersfield.

Madera grower Kenneth Helms said a board staff member spent about 15 minutes at his farm and told him water would run off part of his property on one side of Avenue 51/2, but not from property on the other side of the street.

"I've been here 35 years and have never had water run off any of my property," he said. "It can't go anywhere. He said, 'If it rains 10 inches in an hour, you would have runoff.' I asked him, 'When was the last time that happened?'"

For the past three years, Helms has used drip irrigation to water his vineyard three-eighths of a mile north of the San Joaquin River near Skaggs Bridge. "It just soaks right in," he said.

Robert Rolan, Madera County agricultural commissioner, sympathizes with growers such as Helms.

"It's very difficult for growers to comply with something they don't understand," he said. "We're not mindless bureaucrats. The main frustration is that the program has essentially been vague. It's a train wreck."

Rolan said that if the board proceeds to broaden its enforcement definition to include ground water, it will "rip away whatever lingering fabric there was holding this business together. The overriding issue is they [the board and its staff] have no credibility. This is absolutely going to undermine any level of compliance that was building."

In March, the regional board mailed about 50 letters to growers in Madera County, including Helms, telling them they were not complying with the program. Growers were warned they could face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Landau said no fines have yet been levied and it's anticipated there will be "nothing immediate" in terms of such sanctions.

Klassen said thousands of farmers in the Valley who irrigate their land have not yet joined watershed coalitions that monitor runoff in waterways and collaborate to fix toxicity problems. Eight coalitions regionwide collect more than $2 million from their members annually to support the monitoring.

Starting as soon as next month, additional money from growers in the waiver program will be used to add 22 staff members to the regional board for inspections and enforcement, grower assistance and education, reviewing monitoring reports and other activities.

Under the new fee structure, coalition groups that collect and pay fees for landowners pay 12 cents per acre.

Members of coalition groups where the group does not collect fees pay $100 per landowner, plus 20 cents per acre.

Individual growers who are not members of a coalition pay $100 per landowner, plus 30cents per acre. #

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