Protecting Water Resources from Nonpoint Source Pollution

A massive part of our great state’s economy revolves around the agricultural industry. The state of California produces nearly half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. California’s agriculture is responsible for billions of dollars in revenue each year; over 400 commodity crops are grown here, the top three being dairy, grapes, and almonds. With over 40 million acres (over a quarter of the state) dedicated to pastures, vineyards and crop fields, the impact of waste produced by California’s agricultural industry is no small concern.

Such a massive scale of agricultural production creates a large amount of waste. Agricultural runoff is a type of nonpoint source (NPS) pollution, or pollution that comes from multiple sources. In relation to agriculture, sources of NPS pollution include sediment, fertilizer and pesticides, as well as bacteria, nutrients and waste fromAccording to the website for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “States report that nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems.” Irrigation and rainfall carries agricultural runoff away from its source, eventually ending up in rivers, lakes, coastal waters and wetlands – not to mention potentially contaminating our underground sources of drinking water. Because the pollution happens slowly over a long period of time, the water quality gradually declines, and in some case resulting in negative impacts to fish and wildlife habitat as well as eventual contamination of groundwater.”

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Given the importance of both California’s agricultural industry, it is essential to find ways to limit the damage caused by agricultural runoff. In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Center for Disease Control, increased regulations in an effort to improve water quality and control damage caused by agricultural runoff. Water quality control boards in each region are responsible for finding ways to regulate and enforce proper monitoring and management of any issues that affect water quality.

Locally the Western Riverside County Agriculture Council has implemented measures that support positive environmental stewardship relating to agricultural runoff in our region and protect our drinking water resources. Over the past 16 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.

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In order to qualify for new farming permits the Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) requires compliance from agricultural called a Conditional Waiver for Agricultural Discharges. These regulations are intended to improve water quality within the watershed, however some have expressed concern that the permitting fees can be excessive, the requirements are complicated and question whether the regulations are in fact benefiting the watershed. Regional collaborations such as Lake Elsinore and Canyon Lake TMDL Task Force or the Middle Santa Ana River TMDL Task Force, consisting of multiple agencies and organizations responsible for the TMDL compliance, have been formed by the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority to play an important role in finding effective solutions to protect drinking water resources. In partnership with the Regional Board, the task forces help ensure that the concerns from agriculture producers are shared and mutually beneficial ways to protect our vital water resources are explored.