Water Quality May Improve when Farmers Pool Resources

Farmers need to pool their resources to collaboratively strengthen water quality in California’s Lower Salinas Valley. A team received a $1,300,695 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) for this purpose from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) this fall. This project can also improve habitat for birds and marine species.

For years, agricultural experts have been trying to find the most economically effective ways to help farmers manage nutrient pollution to meet the requirements of regulatory agencies.

In addition to the national Clean Water Act, California farmers face a unique set of water-quality regulations that focus on agricultural runoff and potential pollutants.

When farmers in the Lower Salinas Valley attempt to tackle these regulatory requirements individually, the process is expensive and complex.

Collaboration could be more effective, according to Abigail Hart, Salinas Valley agriculture project director at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). She is working together with Paul Robins, executive director of the Resource Conservation District (RCD) of Monterey County, on this project.

Hart spoke with Conservation Finance Network about her hopes for the long-term results of environmental teamwork in California.

CFN: Could you describe the ecosystems in which this intervention will take place?

Hart: The Lower Salinas Watershed is where we decided to try and put down two pilots that we proposed in this grant application. The Lower Salinas Valley flows into Monterey Bay.

It tends to be a really lovely cool valley where a lot of vegetables are grown. Originally, long ago, before, it was mostly flooded and it was a vast expanse of wetlands.

It’s not that as TNC, we need to see all that original wetland habitat come back. We are excited to cooperate with farmers and really admire the work that those farmers are doing in the Salinas Valley.

But we think it’s a unique opportunity to be able to use natural systems like wetlands that existed there before and that can easily exist there now to clean up some of the nutrients that flow off of farms.

The natural ecosystem would have been more like a wetland complex. Now, it is a really diverse farming landscape with rangelands rising up on either side. It’s a Mediterranean climate.

CFN: Tell me more about the importance of the river and bay ecosystems as well as other neighboring ones that will be improved as a result of this collective effort. What is their importance to both humans and other species?

Hart: The idea behind some of the treatment – primarily the treatment wetlands, less so in the case of bioreactors - [is that] the habitat that would be improved would be wetland types that used to cover the vast majority of the Lower Salinas Valley and the areas around Monterey.

It is a low-lying area. When agriculture came in, it was subsequently tile-drained. Now, you will find very few wetlands in the area. Even though these treatment wetlands will be a relatively small contribution [compared] to what has been lost over the years, the fact that they’re so little [now] makes even those small patches really important to birds that might be flying through.

Birds are a primary target in terms of biodiversity being introduced. The idea is to introduce small patches of habitat where they’re best suited and where they can respond to the human need for improved water quality.

CFN: What environmental benefits do you expect to see?

Hart: At the end of the day, the biggest environmental impact we’re aiming for is a reduced impact on the marine and estuarine species that use an important slough that flows into Monterey Bay, Elkhorn Slough, and the bay itself.

At TNC, we’ve seen that these high levels of agricultural nutrients have impacts on some of the nursery habitat of the marine species in this slough.

That’s the long-term target.

It’s also important to think of the social side of this equation where some of these nutrients end up reaching down into groundwater. And so another environmental outcome is cleaner groundwater, which is important for not only the species that use the valley but the people who drink the water as well.

That’s a much longer long-term target.

We know that groundwater is harder to influence and that the dynamics aren’t as well understood, especially in a tile-drain agricultural system.

CFN: How did you identify the large-scale action that was necessary to address the environmental challenge you described?

Hart: We got to this idea of a cooperative approach to address that for a few different reasons. A lot of the treatment types that we’re talking about are rather expensive to implement. To put in a treatment wetland for a bioreactor can be a very expensive project. It’s a heavy burden for a single person in a watershed there. Those types of treatment can treat a very large area of land. It makes more sense to have this type of cooperation across multiple growers. And then they can share the cost.

It also can address some of the free-rider concerns that those in the watershed might have. Those who are right on the edge of a water body might feel like they are making a huge investment with others. This might allow some of them to easily comply with a regulation without bearing the cost. So forming the cooperative and agreeing where the sites of the treatment centers might be and who is going to pay for them addresses those concerns.

CFN: Was there a study that was done by the state about the nutrients in the area? What data were gathered?

Hart: The state monitors the receiving bodies of water. Streams are monitored for water quality in the area as a general part of Clean Water Act compliance through state agencies called Regional Water Quality Control Boards. So they monitor water quality and determine what the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for each of those water bodies should be. On their website, they list which ones are part of the 303D list. So that means it’s an impacted body of water. They list what they consider to be the likely sources of those impacts. Agriculture is often on the list.

Then, in California, there’s a very complicated set of regulations that cover agriculture. We have a policy… which technically would end up treating non-point-source polluters like agriculture as if they were point-source polluters, giving the state the right to monitor them very closely and fine them for pollution. But then on top of the [state legislation], they’ve given agriculture for the last few years a conditional waiver… for doing some monitoring on their own.

CFN: What are some of the economic and/or financial benefits that might be derived from the collective’s activities?

Hart: Our hope is that our approach will provide a more cost effective way for growers to comply with state water quality regulations and the Clean Water Act.

I don’t know that it will generate any financial returns for them at all. If possible, by paying closer attention to their on-farm practices and how those can be built on by these treatment ponds and bioreactors, they can have direct cost savings in terms of inputs.

But the majority of the economic benefit would be if we are able to get them cooperative-level compliance status with the state regulations. By that I mean that right now each individual operator has to apply and be found compliant with regulations.

CFN: How did the application process work for this grant?

Hart: It was fairly straightforward. It’s very similar to [other] federal grant processes. You just fill out a project description, [write] an executive summary, and prepare your budget.

In the case of the CIGs, they definitely want to see partnerships.

You can speak with the grant officers. They hold webinars along the way to assist you in preparing your proposal and putting together your budget. They provide samples of successful previous proposals.

CFN: Do you plan to disseminate the results of your efforts to other ecological agricultural projects elsewhere?

Hart: For areas that are dealing with something very similar – like pretty serious nutrient contamination issues and finding ways to protect growers who want to be doing progressive positive work in their watersheds and making clear measured numeric progress toward their water quality goals - I think we’ll disseminate results there.

But the growers sort of like their privacy. Out of respect for them, we won’t put out any information they aren’t comfortable with. We have gotten some buzz just around the grant itself.

Note: The Nature Conservancy and USDA are supporters of Conservation Finance Network. Donors outside CBEY and CFN do not review our articles or editorial calendar, but interviewees can review their quotes and Q&As.

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