Farmers Clean Up California’s Waterways

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Photo by brothergrimm (CC)

By: Carlee Brown, EDF summer 2010 intern  

In 2008, California waterways in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties ranked among the most polluted in the state. Water draining from these rich agricultural areas carried high loads of pesticides, sediments, and nutrients into the San Joaquin River, threatening ecosystems and wildlife downstream.  

Groups that had monitored the region’s water quality for years – watershed coalitions and the non-profit group CURES (Coalitions for Urban/Rural Environmental Stewardship) – knew that a combination of farm management practices could keep pollutants out of the San Joaquin River. Infrastructure improvements such as sediment basins, drip irrigation, and irrigation tailwater recirculation systems all offered ways to prevent water pollution. These measures are considered best management practices (BMPs) that keep pesticides and sediments  contained on farms, but they can be cost prohibitive to farmers even in profitable years.    

In order to promote these infrastructure improvements, CURES teamed up with local watershed coalitions, EDF, and ten other partner organizations to apply for funding through the federal Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP). AWEP, championed by Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), was created in the 2008 Farm Bill to help agricultural producers conserve water and improve water quality. The partner organizations secured $10 million from AWEP for infrastructure improvements. Since then, they’ve reached out to farmers and encouraged them to apply for funding to mitigate the cost for the innovative pollution-prevention installations on their farms. 

Through the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, 22 projects were funded in 2009, 23 were approved for 2010, and even more will be added in the coming years. Today, waterways that exceeded recommended levels of agricultural inputs in 2004 have shown dramatic improvement. Of the three priority waterways identified by the watershed coalitions for 2009, two met recommended levels for pesticides and toxicity and the third met water quality regulations for all but one pesticide.  

These extraordinary water quality improvements were largely a result of direct outreach to farmers. CURES has contacted more than 95% of the farmers in the impacted area, instructing them on simple measures to help mend some of the most polluted waterways in the Central Valley. Farmers learned about their direct impact on water quality and many took individual steps by managing and monitoring their land inputs to reduce pollution. 

“The early benefits (in water quality) have come from outreach,” said Chris Hartley of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the program. “Infrastructure improvements we make are going to give them the opportunity to have long term impacts on the resource base.”  

And as farmers learned about their impact on water quality, they also learned about additional infrastructure improvements for which they could apply to receive AWEP funds. So far, more than $3.5 million has been allocated under this partnership. Parry Klassen, Executive Director of CURES, said he was confident that with continued funding, pesticide contamination problems in the Northern San Joaquin area can be eliminated.  

This extraordinary progress shows why conservation programs like AWEP – and its parent program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – should be preserved rather than cut back. The combination of AWEP funding, innovative farmers and fourteen partner organizations have paved the way for dynamic change in Central California’s waterways.

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