Regional Ag Coalition reports water quality improvement

The Merced River below Snelling, photo by Andrew Shun, Dept. of Conservation, 2004.

Congratulations to the East San Joaquin Valley Water Quality Coalition (Coalition) on demonstrating water quality improvement in area waterways – including in two of its three targeted problem areas: the Dry Creek, Duck Slough/Mariposa Creek, and Prairie Flower Drain watersheds. Despite the initial frustration and the challenges of coordinating and funding a large regional coalition of landowners, industry, and watershed interests to insure compliance with strict regulatory guidelines, the Coalition’s hard work is paying off.

In 2003, the sunset of the Ag Waiver (a water quality-related exemption from the state requirement to obtain a water discharge permit for irrigated agriculture runoff) alarmed farmers and ranchers who would be tasked with funding and implementing the state’s water quality monitoring and management standards for agricultural lands. Fortunately, the state provided for conditional waivers of permitting requirements under conditions that irrigated Ag landowners could live with, though barely.

As the lower Merced River watershed coordinator for a Valley resource conservation district in 2003, I worked with others to form the Coalition and meet new requirements established in the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s (Regional Board) new Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP).

Under the ILRP, agricultural dischargers into waters of the state had to choose to Œ 1. file regular reports with the Regional Board to obtain a permit and insure all discharges meet water quality objectives,  2. join a coalition of Ag landowners and obtain a waiver, monitor, and manage water quality in area waterways, or Ž 3. obtain a waiver, monitor, and manage their own individual discharge – an expensive and highly technical undertaking.

The Coalition has grown to cover irrigated Ag lands east of the San Joaquin River in Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Mariposa Counties and portions of Calaveras County. It contains 550,470 irrigated acres and has 2,378 members. Since 2003, the Coalition and other Central Valley agricultural efforts have collectively spent over $15 million to assess and address the impacts of farm runoff on regional waterways.

Over the last four plus years, the Coalition has conducted baseline monitoring in 40 different locations in the region. Beginning with baseline monitoring in 2004, it determined there were numerous locations in the region where Ag discharges were a problem and developed an overall management plan for 27 waterways and identification of the three problem watersheds above.

According to the Coalition’s recently released 2009 Annual Report, the initial management plan focuses on chlorpyrifos among several others, “an insecticide widely used in the region due to its cost effective control of invertebrate pests on many crops, particularly almonds, walnuts, and alfalfa”.

After aggressive outreach and education to members in targeted watersheds in 2008 and subsequent monitoring in 2009, water and sediment quality sample results showed no exeedance of water quality standards in two of the three watersheds. The third watershed continued to exceed standards for the pesticide chlorpyrifos, but further investigation identified the source as a farmer enrolled in a different program who was uninformed about the Coalition’s efforts. Coalition leaders note in the Report that additional years of monitoring will follow to scientifically validate the results, however 2009 outcomes are highly encouraging.

While it’s great news that water quality has demonstrably improved in the key Central Valley watersheds above, why am I blogging about it?

For starters, Tuolumne County has irrigated Ag land covered by the Coalition. Since water runs downhill, their success is ours too. Agriculture is not a villain or the source of widespread willful and egregious pollutant discharges into this region’s rivers and streams as some would have you believe. To be sure, there are still some who discharge polluted runoff, but the Coalition is catching up with them and helping them mend their ways.

Coalition farmers and ranchers have gotten on board with the conditional waiver. They’re educating each other, monitoring and planning to improve water quality, using best management practices and they’re policing themselves. They demonstrate the Coalition model works.

So once again, congratulations to the Coalition and its leaders Executive Director Parry Klassen and Wayne Zipser of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. They’re doing their part to insure the San Joaquin River and its tributaries have good water quality. Thanks, folks!

To learn more about the Coalition and its efforts, go to www.esjcoalition.org or contact them at 209-522-7278.

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I like going places: out West, west of the West, and all the way around the back of the globe to the East. I like to go by train, plane, automobile, horseback. Whatever. And I like writing about what I see, feel, hear, smell, and touch all along the way and once I get there.

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