CA: CV-SALTS Basin Amendments Approved by State Water Board; Significant Changes Ahead for Dairies, Agriculture

Kevin Abernathy MPC General Manager & Dairy Cares

Kevin Abernathy MPC General Manager & Dairy Cares

Milk Producers Council (MPC) – through the Dairy Cares coalition – has been active in a critical water quality regulatory process over the past decade, one that will shape the future as it relates to nitrate and salt management by Central Valley agriculture. This process, known as CV-SALTS, was intended to create new options for complying with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s (Regional Board) regulations for groundwater quality and nitrogen management. At its core, it preserves our ability to farm – empowering agriculture to continue as the Central Valley’s economic engine – while also assuring safe drinking water for those whose water supplies are already impacted.

CV-SALTS tackled this tough issue by proposing changes to inflexible water quality regulations, which required that all water discharges seeping into groundwater meet drinking water standards.

Despite significant advancements in nutrient management technology and even with implementation of today’s best practices, farmers – including dairy farmers – are put in a no-win situation trying to meet the current water quality rules as prescribed by the Regional Board. The technology to completely prevent seepage of nitrates into groundwater simply doesn’t exist for most crops and soil types.

The regulatory changes proposed by CV-SALTS are a better plan that allows farmers, other water dischargers (municipalities, food processors, industrial manufacturers, etc.) and their neighbors the ability to work together to ensure safe drinking water while not crippling Central Valley family farms. The decade-long process involved many stakeholders: state and local agencies, regulated dischargers (growers, dairies, food processors, etc.) and environmental groups. Engaged throughout this process has been Dairy Cares, serving as a voice for dairy families every step of the way. Earlier this week, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted the CV-SALTS plan, which is summarized in the article below by J.P. Cativiela, Dairy Cares Environmental and Regulatory Affairs Director.

By Dairy Cares

On Oct. 16, the State Water Resources Control Board – after several delays and postponements – finally adopted the CV-SALTS amendments to the Central Valley’s Water Quality Control plans.



The amendments – which Dairy Cares has advocated for the past several years – create additional flexibility for dairies, farmers and other water quality permit holders who have struggled to comply with rigid and impractical water quality permit requirements. Most importantly, they create new conditions to allow additional time to meet water quality objectives when meeting those targets is impractical.

The 4-0 vote in favor of the amendments came at the end of a day-long hearing, during which State Water Board members heard continued opposition from environmental advocates, who decried the plan as a license for agriculture to continue to pollute drinking water. They also heard a lot of support from representatives of the regulated community, including Dairy Cares.

The State Water Board made significant concessions to environmental advocates, the most significant of which was ordering the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to immediately begin a process to “amend the amendments.” They gave the Regional Board one year to return with a revised plan with a shorter timeline.

One key point of contention was how much time can pass before agriculture, including dairies, and other permittees, must show they are no longer “causing or contributing to exceedance of water quality objectives” for nitrate. This has been an extremely difficult bar to reach because so many areas already exceed nitrate objectives and not contributing to those levels essentially requires allowing almost no fertilizer to escape into groundwater. Regional Board officials have acknowledged that while agriculture and dairies have been improving their efficiency, there is still no economically feasible combination of technologies and practices that can meet water quality objectives for nitrates today on all crops and soil types – and they don’t know how long it would take to develop solutions that can meet that goal.

Because of the difficulty, the Regional Board had proposed in its plan that permittees must meet nitrate objectives “as soon as practicable” but in a time frame not to exceed 50 years. However, under pressure from environmental advocates, the State Water Board directed the Regional Board to bring back an amended plan with a not-to-exceed 35-year time frame.

The plan now goes for review by the state Office of Administrative Law and is expected to go into full effect by early 2020. That will trigger several activities, including formation of nitrate Management Zones in many areas, and notices to permittees regarding the option to participate in such zones.



Now that CV-SALTS has passed, it is expected that the State Water Board will soon turn its attention to a longstanding petition from several environmental groups regarding the Dairy General Order. Many important and complex activities are ahead and 2020 will be an extremely busy year related to water quality and dairies.

This article appears in the Oct. 18 edition of the MPC newsletter and is used here with permission.  MPC General Manager Kevin Abernathy can be contacted at

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