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Water Board releases plan to address salt contamination

Water Board releases plan to address salt contamination

Regional Water Quality Control Board is taking public comments on its CV-SALTS draft through May 7

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SACRAMENTO – The San Joaquin Valley has long been among the world’s leaders in agriculture production and technological and biological advancements have allowed an area that represents less than 1% of the nation’s total farmland to account for 8% of the country’s agricultural output.

And while many farms use best practices to minimize the effect agriculture pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals have on the land, growing techniques of the past, such as flood irrigation, and the pressure to feed a growing population on shrinking acreage, such as the use of synthetic fertilizers, have had a lasting affect on surface and groundwater. 

Portions of California’s immense Central Valley have salt or nitrate accumulations in the groundwater and soil from both historic and ongoing discharges from legal and accepted agriculture, municipal, and industrial activities. The high nitrate concentrations impact drinking water quality and, in some communities, water supply systems and domestic wells do not meet safe drinking water standards. Salt accumulations have fallowed 250,000 acres and impaired over 1.5 million acres. 

“If not addressed, the economic impacts could be staggering,” stated a recent document released by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, more commonly referred to as the Water Board. “For example, if salt accumulations are not managed, the resulting direct economic costs to the Valley could exceed $1.5-billion per year by 2030. The Valley’s economic future depends on addressing these impacts.”

The statement was made in the Water Board’s 123-page draft Central Valley Salt and Nitrate Control Program released earlier this year. It can be found at www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralvalley/water_issues/salinity/#dsr2018. The Water Board is soliciting public comment on the program’s draft until May 7 before a planned adoption hearing set for its May 31-June 1 meeting. The program is designed to protect surface water and groundwater supplies in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins and the Tulare Lake basin from continued buildup of salts and nitrate. Ultimately, the program is aimed at restoring groundwater supplies with elevated nitrate concentrations and sustainably managing salt concentrations. The draft program calls for amendments to the region’s Water Quality Control Plans designed to address both the past accumulation of salt and nitrate in surface and groundwater, and the ongoing issue of nitrate and salt accumulation.

The draft control program is the product of more than 10 years of collaboration by a coalition of agriculture, environmentalists, municipalities and private citizens. The foundation of the proposed program was developed through the Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CV-SALTS) initiative that submitted a Salt and Nitrate Management Plan to the Central Valley Water Board in January 2017. 

The primary focus for the first 10 years of the program is to reduce the level of nitrates impacting groundwater supplies used for drinking water and facilitate provision of safe drinking water for users currently impacted. In a complementary effort, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is proposing to establish a sustainable funding source, known as the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, that local communities could use to help pay for the treatment of contaminated drinking water supplies. The funding source is part of the administration’s 2018-19 budget proposal. 

The goals of the salt and nitrate control program are to sustain the Valley’s agricultural lifestyle; support regional economic growth; retain a world-class agricultural economy; maintain a reliable, high-quality water supply; and protect and enhance the environment. To support the goals, the amendments also include recommendations for new policies and regulatory strategies. The plan can be modified for issues caused by drought or as a byproduct of water recycling to encourage conservation efforts.

This staff report provides the rationale and supporting documentation for proposed amendments utilizing, in part, technical work completed under the CV-SALTS initiative that evaluated. The Salt and Nitrate Control Program proposed by these amendments are designed to address both salt and nitrate concerns in surface and groundwaters; however, the primary focus of early actions (first ten years) for nitrate is on groundwater quality and impacts to drinking water supplies, and for salt to conduct a study to develop a long-term strategy to control and manage salt in the valley.

The report estimates that the Salinity Control Program would cost agriculture between $357,000 and $696,000 per year for the first 10 years of the program. The cost to agriculture for the Nitrate Control Program was even higher, between $24 million to $36 million per year with another $70,000 to $130,000 per year for surveillance and monitoring. Potential funding sources included bonds or loans, federal grants, government budget appropriations and a list of more targeted funds administered by the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources, such as the Clean Water Act, Agricultural Water Quality Grant Program, Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Integrated Regional Water Management grants.

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