Water Board Hearing: Will Ag Have to Pay?

The State Water Resources Control Board held a hearing in May to gather public input on measures it will recommend to the state Legislature to reduce nitrates and nitrate loading in groundwater, and how to pay for clean drinking water where nitrates exceed the drinking-water standard.

The hearing followed the release of a UC Davis report, “Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water,” which analyzed the levels of nitrates in drinking water in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley and identified potential solutions. The report found that more than 95% of the nitrates in groundwater came from agricultural sources, and that some 250,000 people living on those two basins had, or were likely to have, high nitrate levels in their drinking water.

The State Water Board had requested the report to satisfy a requirement from the state Legislature. The State Board will consider input from the hearing and written comments in developing its recommendations for submission, along with the UC Davis report, to the California Legislature.

The hearing included reports by other state agencies, along with perspectives from agriculture, environmental justice groups and the public, as to what measures should be recommended to the state Legislature. There was agreement on a number of key issues: All Californians deserve clean drinking water; much of the nitrate loading in groundwaters is a legacy issue; and many segments of agriculture (including almonds) have done much to reduce source loading with modern practices, but that there is room to improve how nitrogen is used by growers.

Agricultural representatives expressed concern about proposals that ag groups shoulder all the costs and be subject to strict oversight of their nitrogen use. Other groups supported additional fees and taxes on all fertilizer use as the easiest way to provide funding for clean water as well as mandatory outside recommendations for fertilizer applications, similar to the current model for pesticide applications.

Both the chair of the State Water Board and the report acknowledge that there will be no quick reduction of nitrates in groundwater, given the time it takes for leachates to reach groundwater.