Changing California’s groundwater policies and implementation strategies could increase opportunities for protecting drinking water while improving dairy farm environmental performance.
California’s water protection policies were not developed with agriculture in mind, and the resulting limitations are becoming increasingly problematic. Existing regulations and permits are based on concepts born from regulation of point sources, such as effluent limitations, Total Maximum Daily Loads and others that do not fit well in an agricultural context, particularly for groundwater protection. Meanwhile, regional Water Quality Control Plans call for protection of all identified Beneficial Uses in water bodies, including protection of drinking water quality. Since in many areas these protective policies extend to all groundwater (not just usable aquifers), this creates a fundamental conflict between contemporary agriculture, which applies nitrogen fertilizers to many crops, and drinking water protection regulations, which set standards for nitrate at very low levels (10 mg/L nitrate as N) even in non-aquifers. This especially challenges dairies, whose use of organic nitrogen-rich manure is difficult to manage precisely. For agriculture to maintain compatibility with good water quality, large steps forward in technology and management techniques may be needed, some of which may take decades to achieve. Regulators and farmers, including dairy farmers, have few options when agricultural discharges to groundwater cannot meet water quality objectives. Among these, regulators may disallow the discharges, or only allow discharges to continue under a schedule that requires actions by the discharger expected to result, within a defined time frame, attainment of objectives. Unfortunately, it is not always clear what actions will actually attain this goal, especially in very shallow groundwater directly beneath actively farmed croplands. While dairy farmers have improved nitrogen use efficiency, and have options for further improvement, it is far from clear when objectives can be met with today’s or even future management practices and technology. California should consider policy options that allow for continued farming while pursuing improvement over time, even if those efforts do not immediately or even in the near future meet water quality objectives. Our goal should be continued, responsible farming using economically and environmentally sound practices that move toward attainment of objectives. Meanwhile, policy makers must work with agriculture and other stakeholders to assure safe, affordable drinking water for all Californians. In this manner, agricultural communities can remain viable. Existing regulatory and permitting approaches for implementing the above policies also need improvement. For dairies, regulators require extensive accounting, record-keeping and reporting of nutrient applications, and ongoing groundwater monitoring. This approach is logistically impractical, as it tends to direct resources toward generating records instead of recommendations and actions for improvement. California should instead encourage ongoing professional training for farmers, including education related to using new technologies, funding toward purchases of improved irrigation infrastructure where needed, and research toward continued improvement, refinement and standardization of tools farmers can use to improve economic and environmental performance on farms. Measuring success of these programs should be focused on verifying farmer participation in training efforts, and on broad trends in water quality and nutrient use efficiency, rather than creating overly detailed accounting of outcomes on individual dairy farms.