Minimizing Agricultural and Farming Run-off into Local Watersheds

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Our region has a rich history in farming and agriculture. The agriculture and farming industry continues to strive, providing food, goods and economic benefits, to people in the southland. Currently top selling crops in Riverside County include: milk, nursery stock, table grapes, lemons, hay, eggs, bell peppers, dates, carrots and grapefruit, according to the 2015 Riverside County Agriculture Production Report. According to the 2015 Orange County Annual Crop Report, the overall income from all agriculture products totaled over $125 million. In the 2015 County of San Bernardino Annual Crop Report, milk, cattle and eggs are named as the top three selling products.

There is no denying that agriculture and farming is at the economic core of the Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but what happens to water run off from local farms? Does this affect our drinking water supply? Do pesticides and nutrients eventually flow into rivers and groundwater basins that become a source for drinking water?

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Agricultural runoff is water runoff from agricultural properties and farmlands that carries pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, metals, bacteria and excess nutrients into our rivers and lakes. Gravity pulls the flow of water into bodies of water. Some of these flows can also reach our drinking water sources as water seeps into the soil and is stored in underground aquifers between layers of rock and gravel. Further, these pollutants can harm ecosystems and watersheds affected by the runoff and are known as nonpoint source pollutants since they arise from a variety sources.

An increase in contaminants has prompted the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control to increase regulations in order to improve water quality associated with agricultural runoff. In the Inland Empire the Western Riverside County Agriculture Council (WRCAC) has implemented measures that support positive environmental stewardship relating to agricultural runoff in our region. Over the past 13 years, dairy and agricultural operators in the San Jacinto River Watershed have banded together to voluntarily reduce the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for nutrients released into our watersheds. The Total Maximum Daily Load is the term used to quantify the total amount of pollutants that can be safely released into waterways while meeting water quality standards.

“I have spent my entire career as an agricultural operator and have witnessed significant strides in our industry to reduce pollutants into waterways. What we do impacts our watershed,” shares Bruce Scott, Western Riverside County Agriculture Council Chairman. “Exceptional environmental stewardship is a cooperative effort. Singularly each property can make an impact, however collaboratively we are making historic progress like I have never seen before.”

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With additional regional partners, WRCAC has been instrumental in the development of the Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan with collaboration from the San Jacinto River Watershed Council and played a key part in the Integrated Regional Dairy Management Plan in partnership with the San Jacinto Basin Resource Conservation District. The group assisted with the San Jacinto Watershed Best Management Practices grant with the University of California Riverside, as well as helped secure a dairy water quality grant, all of which make advances in improving water quality. WRCAC was granted a National Resources Conservation District, Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) in 2015. The grant has funded an agricultural runoff model, soils health study and development of innovative tools for addressing nutrients in the watershed.

As an active member of the Lake Elsinore/Canyon Lake Nutrient TMDL Task Force, a coalition of watershed agencies seeking to control nutrients impairing downstream lakes, the agricultural community also participates in Task Force projects such as alum treatments in Canyon Lake, watershed-wide monitoring, revising and updating the TMDL and many more. Additionally, projects supported by WRCAC that are not part of the Task Force activities that minimize and monitor the amount of pollutants that are in agricultural water runoff include:

  • Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG)
  • UCR Agricultural Runoff Model and Scenarios
  • Salt Creek Sampling
  • Agricultural Phosphorus and Nitrogen Nonpoint Source Runoff Loading
  • Ongoing Land Use Agricultural Updates (2005, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2016)

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New data, as recent as late 2016, suggests that agricultural lands serve as a benefit over open space for reducing runoff and nutrients. Crop cover may in fact serve as a Best Management Practice (BMP). Looking into the future, this data may change the future of agricultural runoff and how the water is monitored.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board requires compliance from agricultural operators in order to qualify for a new farming permit called a Conditional Waiver for Agricultural Discharges (CWAD). While regulations are aimed at improving water quality within the watershed, opponents to these regulations state that the fees are excessive, the requirements are complicated and there are in fact little to no benefits to watershed improvement. As goals to improve water quality for the future continue to be established, it is key to note that there are partnerships in place throughout our region to collaboratively seek solutions for on-going improvements to runoff that enters our important water resources.