Farmers in California’s Central Valley grow around 250 crops and provide one-quarter of the nation’s food. That intensive land use means a big thirst for water. But nitrates and rising salt levels threaten the clean water that communities and agriculture depend on. Irrigation Leader spoke with Daniel Cozad, the executive director of the Central Valley Salinity Coalition (CVSC) and the program director of the Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CV‑SALTS) program, about the coalition’s efforts to create a sustainable future for the region—and for the nation’s food supply.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Daniel Cozad: I am a chemist by training, so water quality was my entrée into working in the broader water industry. I have managed a couple of regional public water agencies. In 2006, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board initiated the CV‑SALTS program as a cooperative effort among regulators, permittees, environmental interests, and other parties interested in Central Valley water quality. In 2008, I launched CVSC to supervise the study and business aspects of CV‑SALTS. CVSC is a nonprofit composed of about 25 members. About half of them represent either irrigated agriculture or related industries, such as food processing, wine, and dairy. The other half include cities, counties, special districts, and industry associations. I’m the executive director of CVSC.
Irrigation Leader: Please give us an overview of CVSC’s activities.
Daniel Cozad: We formed CVSC to work with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California State Water Resources Control Board, which are state agencies, to rewrite regulations in a way that provides clean drinking water while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the region’s agriculture. That requires both a scientific and a technological approach. We also conduct legal and legislative efforts to set policy. In the long term, the biggest challenge for us is to build the salinity management infrastructure for the Central Valley. This effort is likely to cost billions of dollars over the next 25‑plus years.
Irrigation Leader: Please introduce the issue of salt and nitrate concentrations in the Central Valley.
Daniel Cozad: Nitrates from dairy and irrigated agriculture, septic wastewater treatment, and other sources already impair portions of the Central Valley’s groundwater used for drinking water and pose a potential health risk to a segment of the population. Rising salt levels threaten to turn this productive basin into a land where the water is not fit to drink and soils are not capable of growing high-value crops. The water that moves through the Sacramento Delta into areas like the Tulare Lake basin and the San Joaquin Valley contains salt. With respect to irrigation, if you bring in irrigation water and not much of it leaves— in other words, if you’re farming efficiently—you’re going to increase the amount of salt through evapotranspiration. Previous agricultural practices were not as refined as today’s with regard to nitrates, and more nitrates were left in the root zone of crops and got into the groundwater below. If you use that groundwater for agriculture, there’s really no problem, but if you drink it, high concentrations can pose a problem.
Irrigation Leader: How does CV-SALTS address that problem?
Daniel Cozad: Nitrates are addressed within CV‑SALTS by groundwater subbasins called management zones. The management zones are organized as coalitions or nonprofit corporations. The board of each is made up of permittees in those areas. Farming and industry entities that need to be able to discharge nitrate generally join management zones for compliance in areas of high priority. As a group, they
figure out the best way to manage nitrate, test domestic drinking water wells, and offer clean drinking water at no cost to those who have contaminated wells. We have six priority 1 management zones and another four or five priority 2 management zones coming next year. They test individual domestic wells and offer free clean drinking water to people with affected wells in their areas. The CV‑SALTS process rewrote the regulations to allow farming and community water use to continue rather than be prohibited or severely restricted.
For salt, we’re doing a prioritization optimization study to figure out the most cost-efficient and cost-effective process to deal with excess salt and the most efficient place to remove it. In places where salts occur in too high a concentration, water can be put in large evaporation basins. The water evaporates, and the salt is left behind without affecting high-quality water. We’re doing a bunch of that as a group, and as long as you’re participating in the study, you don’t have to make any draconian changes to your operations or changes to permits to quickly come into compliance. We believe that the combination of these two approaches— nitrate management zones and salt management—will allow the water’s beneficial uses to continue.
Irrigation Leader: What water quality regulations or permits are already in place, and how do those affect your members?
Daniel Cozad: The members of CVSC all have discharge permits issued by the state. Farmers join a coalition under a general order, and the coalition works directly with the farmers to comply with the permit’s permissions. Individual communities have wastewater permits that are also issued
by the state, which dictate how much nitrate or salt can be discharged. We have two options in each program: Permittees can comply with a conservative permitting approach or they can participate in alternative programs that aim to improve drinking water quickly and develop salt sustainability plans. Under the former approach, you document that you discharge so little salt or nitrate that your facility has a minimal effect on the groundwater or surface water you discharge to. Few people have taken that path, as the requirement is difficult to meet. Alternative compliance is more cost effective for most permittees. That involves joining a management zone or participating in the prioritization optimization study to refine the long-term solutions for salt.
Irrigation Leader: In addition to working with state and local agencies, have you had to lobby for new legislation?
Daniel Cozad: We’ve operated within existing state laws. The changes are under the purview of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Our members have opposed legislative proposals that would make it more difficult to implement these new regulations we’ve been working on for so long. Obviously, we have a huge investment in making regulations work both for the water board and for our members. On the nitrate side, getting clean drinking water to people who need it is not just a regulatory problem. In many cases, these are small, disadvantaged rural communities that grew up around agriculture or agriculture-related activities. Nitrates aren’t their only problem. They have many other contaminants in their water, including arsenic, perchlorates, and 123-TCP. Many of our members worked with environmental justice groups to create a funding source to help address those water contaminants. The management zones that are addressing nitrates are now using that funding to help get clean water to many of those communities.
Irrigation Leader: What are CVSC’s main accomplishments thus far?
Daniel Cozad: CVSC funded and produced a salt and nitrate management plan that was finished about 4 years ago. It looked at all the problems and potential solutions and proposed the best ideas to the water board. Then we worked with the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, the California State Water Resources Control Board, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to write and approve a new amendment to the basin plan. That basin plan amendment took the salt and nitrate management plan and adapted it to regulatory requirements. Those are the two major accomplishments. We also helped our management zones get off the ground and got this new prioritization optimization study underway. There are more than 3,000 participants in the study, all of whom contributed funding and will participate in this study over the next 10 years.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have a message for legislators and regulators at the national level?
Daniel Cozad: We want legislators at the national level to know that finding solutions to salinity in the Central Valley for the future is as critical as any of the investments that have been made in California. Farming just won’t be viable here if these programs don’t succeed in the long term. We’re looking over the next few years to identify long-term funding to support these regulatory and water quality needs. It’s going to take some investment to ensure that farming meets all the environmental rules and regulations for the next 100 years. It’s going to require national funding for us to continue to feed the nation.