Capital Press 12/6/04
Water test responsibility a ‘hot
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
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
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
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
Chip Power reports from Fresno, Calif. Reach him
via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.