Conditional Waivers for Irrigated Lands in California

Updated Requirements for Improved Agricultural Water Quality
The California Water Code authorizes State and Regional Water Boards to conditionally waive waste discharge requirements (WDRs) if this is in the public interest. Over the years, the Regional Water Boards issued waivers for over 40 categories of discharges. Although waivers are always conditional, the historic waivers had few conditions. In general, they required that discharges not cause violations of water quality objectives, but did not require water quality monitoring.  For example, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board passed a resolution in 1982 exempting agricultural land’s irrigation return flows and storm water runoff from having to comply with Waste Discharge Requirements (WDR). 
Senate Bill 390, signed into law on October 6, 1999, required the Regional Water Boards to review their existing waivers and to renew them or replace them with WDRs. Under SB 390, waivers not reissued automatically expired on January 1, 2003. To comply with SB 390, the Regional Water Boards adopted revised waivers. The most controversial waivers were those for discharges from irrigated agriculture. 

Discharges from agricultural lands include irrigation return flow, flows from tile drains, and storm water runoff. These discharges can affect water quality by transporting pollutants including pesticides, sediment, nutrients, salts (including selenium and boron), pathogens, and heavy metals from cultivated fields into surface waters. Many surface water bodies are impaired because of pollutants from agricultural sources. Groundwater bodies have also suffered pesticide, nitrate and salt contamination. Statewide, approximately 9,493 miles of rivers/streams and some 513,130 acres of lakes/reservoirs are listed on the 303(d) list as being impaired by irrigated agriculture. Of these, approximately 2800 miles, or approximately 28%, have been identified as impaired by pesticides.
To control and assess the effects of discharges from irrigated agricultural lands, the Los Angeles, Central Coast, Central Valley, and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Boards have adopted comprehensive conditional waivers. The Colorado River Basin and North Coast Water Boards have adopted Conditional Prohibitions as a TMDL implementation plan incorporated into their respective Basin Plan. The Santa Ana Region Water Board is in the initial phase of developing an irrigated lands regulatory program. An estimated 25,000 growers, who cultivate over 9 million acres, are subject to conditional waivers in these regions. These Regional Water Boards have made significant strides to implement their programs and are committed to continue their efforts to work with the agricultural community to protect and improve water quality. The number of acres and agricultural operations will increase as other Regional Water Boards adopt conditional waivers for discharges from irrigated agricultural land. 

Regional Water Boards 2 and 6 have no immediate plans to adopt waivers for agricultural discharges, but may do so eventually to implement TMDLs.The Regional Water Boards are using proactive solutions to control agricultural discharges. One solution is a pilot project that assigns roles for implementing the waivers to County Agricultural Commissioners. A Memorandum of Understanding signed by staff from the State Water Board, the Central Valley Water Board, the Department of Pesticide Regulations and County Agricultural Commissioners describes these roles. In addition, the Los Angeles and Central Coast Water Boards have used a comprehensive public outreach and education approach. Consequently, 70 percent of their agricultural communities are participating in the program. 
The San Diego Water Board is initiating a similar public outreach and educational program. The Colorado River Basin Water Board is using an innovative, and apparently successful, approach in addressing sediment impairment in Imperial Valley agricultural drains. As a control mechanism, Colorado River Basin Water Board staff has developed a “conditional prohibition”, as allowed by the basin plan. The conditional prohibition is implemented by the Colorado River Basin Water Board’s TMDL program in a collaborative effort with the Imperial County Farm Bureau. A recent review of the program indicates reduction in sediment loads.
State and Regional Water Board staff and the agricultural community recognize the importance of the irrigated agricultural waiver program and are committed to work together to assess and address environmental impacts that are identified as being caused by discharges from irrigated lands. 

For additional information on agricultural waivers, please contact Johnny Gonzales at (916) 341­-5510 or

Central Valley's Irrigated Lands Waiver Program 

The Irrigated Lands Conditional Waivers is an interim program until a 10-year implementation program can be developed. During the interim period, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has directed its staff to develop a 10-year plan to meet water quality objectives and prepare an Environmental Impact Report in support of the plan and meet with watershed coalitions as needed. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board also have implemented irrigated lands waiver programs. 
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a new "Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands" in 2003. Obtaining this waiver means that surface discharges of irrigation water, groundwater drainage, and storm water from irrigated lands do not require a permit, as long as steps are taken to improve water quality on the acreage. 

As a condition of the waiver, the Regional Board requires agricultural dischargers to participate in an established coalition group or filing as an individual discharger:
  • Participation in a coalition group approved by a regional water quality control board authorized by the conditional waiver – individual dischargers that participate in a recognized and approved watershed group will receive the benefit of being covered under the conditional waiver without having to obtain an individual discharge permit. The primary advantage of participating in the Coalition is the economic and water quality efficiencies in monitoring and reporting and the opportunity to field test, evaluate, and disseminate management practices. Each grower who elects to proceed under this watershed approach will be responsible to participate in their subwatershed program, to attend grower seminars on this topic, and to carry out the best management practices that are necessary to improve water quality within each subwatershed.
  • Participation as an individual under the conditional waiver – dischargers have the option to file for individual coverage, with the accompanying monitoring and reporting requirements. The California Farm Bureau Federation has studied this option closely and estimates that development of a farm plan and purchase of equipment would cost approximately $3,000-$6,000 per farm. Annual monitoring and reporting costs would likely be $7,000-$14,000.
If agricultural dischargers choose not to seek a waiver under one of the above conditions, they must obtain an individual waste discharge permit. Agricultural dischargers who fail to join a coalition group or file as an individual discharger could ultimately be subject to fines of up to $1,000 for each day the violation occurs. 

In June 2006, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board voted to extend the waiver for another five years. A number of fishing, farm worker, and environmental groups had advocated for stricter accountability and enforcement of the waiver program. The board did vote to require submission of an electronic list of coalition members.