By Vicky Boyd

Beginning with the 2020 season, San Joaquin County growers will have to provide the state with additional information about water use and irrigation efficiency as part of their nitrogen management plans. Also in 2020, growers will have to begin testing domestic drinking water wells on their property for nitrates, with the results being sent directly from the laboratory to the state.

Together, the new Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program requirements are expected to increase paperwork for growers, who say they’re already overburdened with a myriad of reports.

“For smaller growers especially, it’s really going to be tough,” said Mike Wackman, executive director of the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition. “In our office, we do have staff that has a background and can help growers on a limited basis, especially small growers. But most growers will have to rely heavily on their CCAs (certified crop advisers).”

Ken Vogel, who grows walnuts and cherries near Linden, is one of those smaller - scale growers. From the beginning of the irrigated lands reporting requirements, he has hired someone to complete his paperwork. The same person also does his food safety documentation.

“With all of these different types of reports, it’s created job opportunities,” said Vogel, also San Joaquin Farm Bureau second vice president.

He said the person who does his reports also helps about a dozen other growers with theirs.

“I’m having to pay to get this done, and I want to make sure I’m doing it right,” Vogel said. “That’s a little business he’s created.”

Mick Canevari, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser emeritus, does his own nitrogen plans for his two walnut orchards. He only deals with one commodity, and the ranches share similar nitrogen requirements.

Even though he has an agronomy degree and is a CCA, Canevari said it still took him about 45 minutes to complete online.

“All of these symbols and units and the jargon they ask for, that was part of my career, so it wasn’t intimidating to me – I understand it,” he said. “If I were a grower filling it out, I may have to ask, what does this mean? I don’t think it’s simple. But I do think the Natural Resources Conservation Service has done a reasonably good job providing in that envelop adequate information to help you fill it out. But yes, it is time consuming.”

How did we get here?

The nitrogen/irrigation reporting stems from a challenge filed by two environmental groups against the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in 2016.

After lengthy reviews by two panels and the State Water Board itself, the board adopted revised waste discharge requirements for the East San Joaquin River Watershed in February 2018. Because many of revisions were precedential, they applied to all of the state’s 30 - plus water quality coalitions.

Each water quality coalition had to incorporate the changes into its individual plan and have it approved by the local water quality board. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board accepted the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition’s plan in February, and the updates become effective Jan. 1, 2020. 

Before the new reports have to be completed, Wackman said the coalition plans to hold workshops to help growers and CCAs walk through the worksheets.

For 2019, San Joaquin County growers will just have to complete their standard nitrogen management plans and nitrogen summary reports, which will be due to the coalition in early 2020.

The new nitrogen/irrigation plans will cover the 2020 season and will be due to the San Joaquin County coalition in early 2021.

“The nitrogen/irrigation plans are basically budgets of what you think you’ll use for nitrogen,” he said.

“There’s no specific requirements of what you have to put on as of now – and I say as of now. This is more to get growers to make budgets and look at how they can take all of these factors into consideration when they’re applying nitrogen.”

After the end of the season, growers will go back and record how much water and nitrogen they actually used and their crop yields.

Included on the nitrogen/water management worksheet are questions about nitrogen and irrigation - use efficiencies. Did the grower turn to soil moisture sensors, pressure bombs, laser leveling or ET (evapotranspiration) to aid water management decisions? Did he or she use soil tests, in - season tissue sampling or irrigation water nitrogen testing to manage nitrogen?

The report has to be signed by a certified crop adviser or by a producer who has successfully passed a self - certification course. Wackman said some growers are confused about the difference between CCAs and pest control advisers, or PCAs.

CCA is a voluntary national educational program administered by the American Society of Agronomy that focuses heavily on nutrient management. To become a certified CCA, individuals must meet specific educational requirements and pass a test.

PCAs, on the other hand, must meet different requirements and are licensed by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. A PCA also may be a CCA if he or she has met the American Society of Agronomy requirements and passed its test.

Reports show nitrogen - use trends

Once growers within the coalition have submitted their reports, Wackman and others analyze them to determine nitrogen use trends. The information will help guide the coalition in developing future grower education sessions, should they be needed.

The tough job will come five years from now, Wackman said.

“Then we’re going to have to take a serious look at what areas are being impacted by nitrates seeping into groundwater,” he said.

But Wackman said growers can get ahead of potential issues by closely monitoring their nitrogen use now.

“The more information we can gather that shows a positive thing for ag, the better off we are,” he said.

“If we can show growers are extremely efficient, are doing all of these things and implementing practices to be protective of water quality, that’s what we’re looking for. So there’s a positive side as well as a negative side.”

Drinking well testing

Any grower with a drinking well on his or her property will also be required to collect and submit water samples, beginning in 2020. This is separate from the nitrogen/irrigation reporting, but both fall under the irrigated lands program.

Vogel said he owns two parcels with walnuts as well as domestic wells that will have to be tested.

Unlike the nitrogen/irrigation report, which will be sent to the coalition, water testing results will be sent directly from the testing laboratory to the state.

Only ELAP – Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program – laboratories certified for nitrate and nitrite - as - nitrogen testing can be used.

Once the lab uploads results to the state GeoTracker database, they also become public, Wackman said.

Each well will be identified through APN – assessor’s parcel numbers – and tagged with location information. As of right now, well or property ownership will remain anonymous, he said.