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Capital Press 12/6/04

Water test responsibility a ‘hot topic’

FRESNO, Calif. — Irrigation districts have steadfastly told state regulators that they can’t be held responsible for the quality of water that comes into their systems from upstream.

The issue, one of dozens that have arisen after California adopted new irrigated-lands runoff rules in 2003, has been a “hot topic,” said Bill Croyle, a state water program manager who has been working with coalitions that formed to meet the new farm and ranch requirements.

Water districts say they remain committed to monitoring only their operational spills. And although they say they their canals receive very little tailwater from irrigated agriculture, they say that the water coalitions — not the districts — should be responsible for monitoring agricultural discharges.

Croyle said that some, but not all, water districts have legal provisions which would preclude upstream users from degrading a district’s water standards. But the question of legal liability, and the trail of responsibility for tainted water that may flow from region to region, has been one that has dogged the program, which initially was bitterly opposed by many agricultural groups.

Meantime, water sampling has been completed in more than 70 streams and sloughs carrying farm drainage in a program that began in mid-summer throughout the Central Valley. The monitoring, Croyle said, is part of the new Irrigated Lands Waiver program put into effect last year amid environmental concerns that the state was not protecting state streams and rivers.

The initial sampling has been funded by seven new watershed coalitions and a program operated by Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has been monitoring water from 31 sites from Butte County in the north to Fresno County in the south.

An additional 40 sites are being monitored by the watershed coalitions in the Central Valley. The coalitions have announced that they will add 20-plus sites to that list this winter when storm event monitoring begins.

Preliminary toxicity data has demonstrated water quality “better than we had expected,” said Croyle. And he said that the state did not discount data compiled from programs not yet aligned with a formally recognized state watershed coalition.

“If it’s good data, it’s good data,” he said.

However, he had less favorable news for farmers who thought that they would be exempted from the new water code based on an idea that they pose a limited risk of downstream impacts from pesticides, turbidity, excess nutrients or other pollutants that California wants to separate from public waters. The law did not create such a low-risk exemption, said Croyle.

The conditional waiver requires a “phased” approach to water sampling. The first two years include testing for toxicity and stream parameters such as flow, temperature, pH and coloform bacteria. Toxicity testing is a standard analysis that exposes three test species to the water sample. When organism toxicity occurs, further analysis determines the cause, according to water managers. In succeeding years, Croyle said, coalitions will monitor for nutrients and specific pesticides used by farmers in a watershed.

He said the program was never intended to paint an industry with a broad brush, though it has been criticized for what some call a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy. He said everyone will benefit when problem areas are detected and corrected.

Critics say the program doesn’t go far enough. Environmental and fishing groups filed suit last spring challenging California’s Central Valley regional water board’s decision to “exempt” more than 25,000 growers from clean water laws.

In the meantime, coalitions have been assessing per acre membership fees ranging from $1 to $5 per acre.

Chip Power reports from Fresno, Calif. Reach him via e-mail at cpower@capitalpress.com.

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