Central Coast Region Agricultural Waiver

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(Otherwise known as the 'Ag Waiver' or 'Ag Order'; formally the Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands)

A watershed-related issue examined by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.
Picture Reclamation Ditch looking upstream from San Jon Rd.(Photo: Don Kozlowski, June 2002). Copied from CCoWS DPR Final Report.


The Central Coast Region Ag Waiver (Ag Order) is a Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge from irrigated lands in the Central Coast Region of California. The Ag Waiver is combination of regulatory elements that is authorized by the California Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.

In California, The Regional Water Quality Control Boards have the authority to conditionally waive waste discharge requirements (WDRs) under the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Programs (ILRP) for discharge from agricultural operations. The Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements apply to owners and operators of irrigated lands used for commercial crop production. The "Ag Waiver" is “conditional” waiver of regulatory requirements which can be revoked by the WQCB if contractual requirements including a Report Of Waste Discharge (ROWD) and Waste Discharge Requirements (WDRs) [1] are not met. In addition, penalties (monetary) can be levied for infractions. The intent of this program is to address environmental impacts resulting from agricultural contributions leading to the impairment of water quality as defined in Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.[2]

Commercial agricultural operations (including: row, vineyard, field and tree crops, commercial nurseries, nursery stock production, and some greenhouse operations) are required to enroll and comply with waiver requirements [3]. Generally these requirements include implementation of BMPs for water quality, surface and groundwater monitoring to assess impacts of discharge, participation in farm water quality educational programs, implement TMDLs and adopt Farm Plan requirements.[4] Monterey Bay Regional TMDLs have specific loading goals for Monterey Bay Region 303d enlisted contaminants.

Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements are reviewed, revised, replaced, or reissued every five years. Growers are required to comply with several conditions, including: discharge prevention and management, water quality monitoring, and corrective actions for identified sources of impairment.[5] Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc. (CCWQPI), a non-profit agency in the central coast region is responsible for conducting a cooperative monitoring program to assist growers in complying with monitoring requirements of the Ag Waiver program.[6] The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (CCRWQCB) is one of 4 Regional Boards (3,4,5,9) to implement a "Conditional Ag Waiver"; the first Central Coast conditional ag-waiver was implemented in 2004 [4]. Further detail including the most recent regional Ag Order facts, farm tier classification and enrollment Electronic Notice of Intent (eNOI).

Role of the Regional Water Quality Control Board

The Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act of 1969 is the primary law regulating the quality of both surface and ground waters in California. This Act empowers the State Water Resources Control Board as the agency responsible for water quality planning statewide and grants authority to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards (RWQCBs). [7] California contains nine Water Quality Control Regions, each regulated by its own RWQCB.

Previous RWQCB waivers included irrigated land discharges contain a limited number of mandatory requirements in comparison to the newest waiver. Senate Bill 390, signed into law on October 6, 1999, required RWQCB to review existing waivers and to renew them or replace them with WDRs. Under SB 390, waivers not reissued automatically expired on January 1, 2003. RWQCB compliance under SB 390, required the reformulation and adopted of revised waivers. The Ag Waiver is a direct result of this process.

The Central Coast (Region 3) RWQCB monitors and regulates water quality from southern San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties to the northern part of Ventura County. 9 Regionally-specific approaches exist to address water quality impairment throughout California. The RWQCBs are responsible for the enforcement of Waste Discharge Requirements (WDRs), this includes the enforcement of all conditional waivers of WDRs.

Regulatory History

  • 1983: The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a waiver officially exempting irrigation return flows and other discharges from agricultural lands from Waste Discharge Requirements.[8] Waste water discharge from agricultural irrigation was similarly exempted through the issuance of Ag Waivers by the Central Valley, San Diego, and Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Boards [9].Section 13269 of the California Water Code (CWC) grants Regional Water Quality Control Boards the authority to waive waste discharge requirements (WDRs).
  • 1987: CWA was amended, adding Section 319 requiring states to regulate non-point source pollution. California developed a three-tiered system, including conditional waivers in the regulation of the agriculture industry.[9].
  • 1999: the state legislature amended Section 13269 of the CWC, requiring RWQCBs to review existing conditional waivers, forcing waivers not revised or reissued to expire January 2003 [10]. The amendment also required that new waivers be conditional upon compliance with water quality monitoring requirements, and have a term of no longer than five years.[8]
  • 2003: The CWC was amended to grant the State Water Board with the authority to instigate fees for waivers[9].
  • 2004: The first Ag waiver was issued, requiring that all farmers of irrigated land within the Central Coast region to:[11]
  1. Produce a Notice of Intent
  2. Complete a 15 hour course on water quality management
  3. Produce water quality management plan
  4. Implement water quality improvement practices
  5. Monitor water quality, either individually or through the Cooperative Monitoring Program (CMP).

In addition, the 2004 Ag waiver introduced a effort-based tiered system for dischargers:

  • Tier 1: Dischargers would have to complete 15 hours of Regional Board-approved water quality education; complete a Farm Plan by the enrollment deadline; provide biennial implementation checlists to the Regional Board; and perform individual or cooperative water quality monitoring.
  • Tier 2: Dischargers would have to complete at least 5 hours of Regional Board-approved water quality education per year; complete a Farm Plan within three years of the enrollment deadline; provide annual practice implementation checklists identifying implemented and planned practices and progress reports; and perform individual or cooperative water quality monitoring.
  • 2009: In a Press Release on December 10, The Water Board directed the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board staff to distribute a preliminary report including the preliminary draft order for the regulation of discharges from irrigated lands on February 1, 2010.
  • 2010: This preliminary report and preliminary draft order became available on February 1, 2010 and was available to the public to review, comment, and provide alternative recommendations for regulating agricultural discharges. Water Board members request that members of the public submit comments or alternatives to staff by April 1, 2010. In July 2010 the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board extended the 2004 Ag waiver to the end of March 2011. A revised draft of the waiver was produced in November 2010.
  • 2012 On March 15, 2012, the CCRWQCB adopted the new Agricultural Order RB3-2012-0022, commonly referred to as the conditional waiver of Waste discharge Requirements (WDRs) or Ag Waiver.

Regulatory Structure

Applicable elements of the regulatory process are used to address both surface and groundwater quality of irrigated lands. Water quality standards established to address complex water quality issues require an array of programs, entities, regulations and intra-agency cooperation to properly address water quality issues.

Water Quality Standards

Resource impacts and risks resulting from irrigated land discharge are addressed through water quality standards outlined within the Ag Waiver. These standards are in accordance to federal regulations.

Requirements include:

  1. Central Coast Water Quality Control Plan (Basin Plan)-Porter-Cologne Act
  2. Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements for The 303d list of Impaired Waterbodies in the Monterey Bay Region established under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA)
  3. California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
  4. California Water Code, section 13050
  5. Anti-degradation, as under SWRCB Resolution No. 68-16
  6. Prohibitions:
  • Prohibitions are typically considered in terms of Beneficial Uses (BUs), for municipal and domestic supply, recreational, and aquatic life and including all waterbodies not explicitly excluded in the Basin Plan. California maintains twenty categories of water quality standards.[12] The BUs include but are not limited to:
  • Drinking Water
  • Irrigation
  • Fresh Water Habitat
  • Marine Habitat
  • Estuarine Habitat
  • Areas of Special Biological Significance

Renewal Process

The RWQCB spent almost 4 years finalizing 2012 Central Coast Ag Waiver. This included 5 public written comment periods, 7 public workshops and hearings, and over 60 outreach events; they received around 2,000 comment letters and testimony from hundreds of organizations and individuals [3]. They received several Agricultural Alternative Proposals on behalf of numerous farm bureaus, grower coalitions, and the Grower-Shipper Association[8]. The 2004 ag waiver was extended a year past its original expiration date initially and later further extended[4]. One potential concern of farmers was the individual monitoring of farms, the results of which would be publicly accessible[4]. The Final Order was passed in March 2012 and will expire in March 2017[1].

Implementation of the 2012 Agricultural Order

Applicable to each of the three tiers under the conditional Ag Waiver requirements: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 created within the 2012 Ag Order must successfully subscribe complete the following requirements to meet minimum compliance standards:

  1. Enroll in the Order by filing an electronic-Notice of Intent (eNOI)
  2. Develop and Implement a Farm Plan
  3. Implement management practices to protect water quality
  4. Conduct Surface Water Receiving Monitoring and Reporting (Cooperatively or Individually)
  5. Conduct Groundwater Monitoring and Reporting (Cooperatively or Individually)
  6. Install Backflow Prevention devices
  7. Submit Annual Compliance Form (Tier 2 and Tier 3 Only)
  8. Conduct Individual Discharge Monitoring and Reporting (Tier 3 ONLY)
  9. Develop and Implement Certified Irrigation and Nutrient Management Plan (Tier 3 Only)
  10. Develop and Implement Water Quality Buffer Plan (Tier 3 Only)

Tiering System

The modified tier system applied within the Ag Order scales the requirements based on threat to water quality. Farms that are lower threat are in either Tier 1 or Tier 2 (approximately 97% of all farms in the region) and have fewer requirements. Farms in tier 3 are the highest risk to water quality and drinking water sources (approximately 3%) and have more requirements.

Tiers are determined by growers when submitting the NOI and confirmed by the RWQCB.The Grower Shipper Association released a flow chart that helps illustrate how to determine which tier a farm falls under.

Considerations for placement include use of chlorpyrifos or diazinon; distance (more than 1000 ft) to 2010 Impaired Water Bodies for toxicity, pesticides, nutrients, turbidity or sediment; crop types with high potential to discharge N to groundwater in farms >50 acres and within 1000 ft of a well part of public water system in exceedence of nitrogen, nitrate, or nitrite MCLs. Tier 2 include farms 50-500 acres with the N threat; Tier 3 are greater than 500 acres[1].

Summary Chart and Description of Requirements

  • Implement management measures to achieve water quality improvements including practices and projects at the scale of a single farm, or cooperatively among multiple farms in the watershed or sub watershed
  • Completion and implementation of a Farm Plan including:
    • Irrigation management
    • Pesticide management
    • Nutrient management
    • Sediment and erosion control management
    • Aquatic habitat protection
  • On farm water quality monitoringand reporting to evaluate effects of discharges of waste from irrigated agricultural operations on waters of the state and to determine compliance with the Ag Order
  • Protect existing aquatic habitat from the impacts of discharger's waste
  • Tier 2 and 3 farmers have additional regulatory requirements.

Table 1. Time schedule for compliance for all dischargers (Tiers 1, 2, & 3). Taken from the final 2012 Conditional Waiver of Waste Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands (Order No. R3-2012-0011). AgWaiverReqs1.JPG

Table 2. Time schedule for compliance for dischargers in Tier 2 and 3. Taken from the final 2012 Conditional Waiver of Waste Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands (Order No. R3-2012-0011). AgWaiverReqs2.JPG


The RWQCB may conduct inspections to confirm compliance with the Order and provisions of the Porter-Cologne Act. Inspections require consent of owner or provision of warrant.

Associated Fees

2 fees are associated with the waiver:

  1. to the RWQCB
  2. to the cooperative monitoring group, unless opted out for individual monitoring
  • Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc.(CCWQP)

Enforcement Mechanisms

  • Administrative Civil Liability Actions (ACLs)
  • Notice of Violations resulting in monetary penalties

Changes between the 2004 and 2012 Ag Waiver

  • the removal of the 1,000 acre trigger
  • additions to the lowest tier constituents
  • Groundwater monitoring now required by grower or under cooperative monitoring (incl. five year groundwater monitoring for Tier 1 & 2)
  • Tier requirements assigned to individual farm or ranch; previously, considered entire operation as one unit
  • Sizing trigger reduced from 1000 acres to 500 acres for high N potential crop types
  • Use of the UC Nitrate Hazard Index (original UC version that incorporates soil type) to determine nitrate risk
  • No additional pesticides were added to trigger list although the option was discussed at length[4]
  • additional language regarding stormwater and bare ground [13]

Table 3. Changes in Ag Waiver between 2004 and 2012 Conditional Waiver of Waste Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Lands (Order No. R3-2012-0011).

Issues 2004 Order No. R3-2004-0117 2012 Order No. R3-2012-0011
Groundwater monitoring* Not required by growers All tiers (1,2,&3) required to submit groundwater monitoring results.
Backflow prevention Not Mentioned Dischargers that apply fertilizers, pesticides, fumigants or other chemicals through an irrigation system must install and maintain adequate backflow prevention devices (§ 30).
Previous nitrate contamination Effect on Tiers Not mentioned. However if the discharger is located in an area where the groundwater has been previously identified as being contaminated by nitrate then it is not their responsibility to treat it. However, if the discharger is using the contaminated groundwater, they need to treat it appropriately before it leaves the land as runoff. If the discharger's operation is within 1000 feet of a public water system well that exceeds the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate, nitrite, or nitrate + nitrite this could cause the discharger to be assigned the Tier 2 instead of the Tier 1 class (§14 & § 15).
High Nitrate Loading Risk Not Mentioned Tier 2 and Tier 3 dischargers with high nitrate loading risk must record and report total nitrogen in the Annual Compliance Form, electronically in a format specified by the Executive Officer (§ 70).
Abandoned wells Not Mentioned Dischargers must properly destroy all abandoned ground water wells, exploration holes, or test holes(§ 31).
Erosion Land managers must identify practices they will employ to reduce erosion and surface runoff. The waiver suggest a combination of practices to reduce on-site erosion. These practices should reduce erosion during storm events as well as irrigation management practices. They suggest the following practices:
  • sediment detention basins including earthen embankments (following proper engineering standards)
  • cover crops
  • filter strips
  • furrow alignment
Dischargers must implement source control or treatment management practices to prevent erosion, reduce stormwater runoff quantity and velocity, and hold fine particles in place. Dischargers must minimize the presence of bare soil vulnerable to erosion, such as unpaved roads (§ 35 & § 36).
Maintaining Riparian areas Not mentioned, however suggested as a method that can be employed to minimize on site erosion Dischargers must maintain existing riparian areas to minimize the discharge of waste and for streambank stabilization and erosion control (§ 38).
MRP (Monitoring and Reporting)Requirements Found for all dischargers in Order No. R3-2004-0117 One Order per tier. Tier One: Order No. R3-2011-0006-01; Tier 2: R3-2011-0006-02; Tier 3: Order No. R3-2011-0006-03 (§ 50).
On Changing Tiers Dischargers can only be classified as tier 2 for 3 years, after which they are required to upgrade to tier 1. If the dischargers do not make a concerted effort to do so after 3 years, they will be issued waste discharge requirements (unless they notify the Regional board, prior to issuance, that the requirement could not be met due to extenuating circumstances). The Executive Office can approve transfer to a lower tier upon request of the discharger (§ 17) and can also transfer to a higher tier based on discharging threats (§ 18).


A diverse group of stakeholders from both public and private sector are involved in this program, including:

  • The Central Coast (Region 3) Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB)
  • Farmers practicing irrigated farming in the central coast region are subject to conditions of the Ag Waiver PUT IN STATS-- SIZE OF AREA, NUMBER OF FARMERS REG'D.
  • All organisms making use of water that comes in contact with agricultural discharges; whether for drinking, recreation, or habitat, are all affected by the outcome of the Ag Waiver program.
  • Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc. (CCWQPI). Among the conditions imposed by the Ag Waiver is a requirement for water quality monitoring. A Cooperative Monitoring Program (CMP) has entrusted CCWQPI to conduct Ag waiver monitoring as a unbiased third-party. This CMP prevents the need for farmers to sample monitor their operations independently.
  • The Monterey Coastkeeper was formed with the goal of pursuing water quality issues through policy advocacy and legal tools to ensure that the interests of development, industry and urban activity are kept in line with the environmental needs and wishes of the community it serves. Since its inception, The Coastkeeper has been active in championing for effective government regulations, good public policy and an active community role in protecting freshwater and marine waters alike. Water quality is one of the most pressing environmental concerns in the Central Coast Region and is particularly important in Monterey, a region of extraordinary beauty, and an area of biological significance due to its status as a biodiversity hot spot. Development, agricultural and industrial activity play a significant role in Monterey; however if pollutant runoff is not properly regulated then this may pose serious risk to the natural resources that sustain human and wildlife populations in the area. There is a strong need for a community advocate to address these issues to ensure that regulations are effectively upheld; the Monterey Coastkeeper fills this role. Two of the largest threats to water quality and watershed health are urban stormwater and agricultural runoff.Monterey Coastkeeper.
  • The Central Coast Ambient Monitoring Program (CCAMP) is the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board's regionally scaled water quality monitoring and assessment program. CCAMP is primarily funded by the State Water Board's Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program and by a private endowment held with the Bay Foundation of Morro Bay. Central Coast Ambient Monitoring Program.
  • The California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) operates and maintains the State Water Project, including the California Aqueduct. The department also provides dam safety and flood control services, assists local water districts in water management and conservation activities, promotes recreational opportunities, and plans for future statewide water needs. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR), establishedin 1956 by the California Legislature, plays an important role in sustaining California’s economy, environment and quality of life. California Department of Water Resources
  • The Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA) is designed to protect, and enhances the quantity and quality of water and provides specified flood control services for resent and future generations of Monterey County Monterey County Water Resource Agency.
  • The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service was originally established by Congress in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), NRCS has expanded to become a conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and more resilient to environmental challenges, like climate change. NRCS works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
  • The Central Coast Water Quality Coalition (CCWQC) represents farmers and ranchers in the development and implementation of voluntary, cost-effective, producer-directed programs to protect water quality on the Central Coast.


Numerous scientific studies address concerns about water supply, water quality, wastewater treatment, water pollution control in surface and groundwaters, and the impacts, evaluation and management of hazardous waste. Studies used to support recommendations for the waiver program included research from several agencies and organizations.

Waterbodies inside and surrounding agricultural areas the Central Coast have have exceeded maximum contaminant levels for water quality standards as well as biological and physical conditions. Various reports concerning agricultural practices conducted throughout the central coast have resulted in the following conclusions:

Surface Water Concerns [15]

Pollution from agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to California's water supply.

  • Most areas determined to be contaminated from agricultural pollutants within the last five years are still seriously contaminated.
  • The 2008 Clean Water Act Section 303(d) List of Impaired Waterbodies for the Central Coast Region contained 167 water quality limited segments.
  • 60% of these identified agriculture as one of the potential sources of water quality impairment.
  • 82% of the most degraded sites in the Central Coast Region are in agricultural areas.
  • Nitrate contamination in areas heavily impacted by agriculture are not improving and appear to be getting worse.
  • 30% of all sites from Central Coast Ambient Monitoring Program (CCAMP) and Irrigated Agriculture Program Cooperative Monitoring Fact Sheets contain average nitrate concentrations exceeding drinking water standards.
  • 57% of CCAMP sites exceed nitrate levels deemed necessary to protect aquatic life.
  • These contaminated waters draining into the ocean also put the quality of coastal waters at risk.

Groundwater ConcernsCite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Measuring Agricultural Water Pollution:

Understanding water quality changes requires an array of tests, including:

Physical Tests:

  • Temperature
  • Total suspended solids
  • Turbidity

Chemical Tests:

  • Total dissolved oxygen
  • Nutrients
  • Metals
  • pH

Biological Tests:

  • Bacteria concentrations

Controlling Agricultural Water Pollution

Controlling agricultural runoff requires management of point source controls as well as non-point source controls. These include:

Point source controls:

  • Containment tools in livestock operations that trickle waste water into grasslands
  • Constructing or utilizing wetlands to assist treatment of animal wastes and runoff from fields
  • Composting animal waste to produce manure for soil improvement

Non-point source controls:

  • Erosion controls such as crop rotation, contour plowing and riparian buffers reduce soil erosion and agricultural runoff
  • Reduction in the application of synthetic fertilizers to reduce nitrate concentrations
  • Integrated Pest Management reduces the use of chemical pesticides
  • Increased tile drain spacing or decreased tile drain depth as a potential remedy to reduce nutrient transport into nearby streams (not yet official)

Organizations involved in water quality policy & monitoring

Central Coast Surface Water Data Collection Organizations

  • Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc.
    • Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program (CMP) [16]
  • Central Coast Ambient Monitoring Program (CCAMP) [17]

Central Coast Groundwater Data Collection Organizations

  • California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) [18]
  • California Department of Public Health (CDPH) [19]
  • Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA) [20]

Mitigation and Remediation Organizations

  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service [21]
  • Central Coast Water Quality Coalition [22]

Encouraging Best Management Practices

  • Monterey Coastkeeper [23]

Technical Assistance


  1. NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service)
  • Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP)
  1. RCDs (Resource Conservation Districts)
  2. UCCE (UC Cooperative Extension)
  3. Farm Bureaus
  4. Private Industry Consultants

Future research

Under the Clean Water Act, agricultural runoff has been exempt from permitting requirements under the NPDES regulations. If the regional board’s authority to issue waste discharge waivers is repealed, new studies need to reassess which dischargers that have not previously been subjected to permitting requirements will now be required to get a permit.

A CWSP thesis project can involve analyzing differences in pollution levels in a selected study area within a short time period examining the impact of the repeal

Extend the CWSP project to look at rates of pollution over the next several years to find out what kind of long term impact repealing the Ag Waiver will have on water quality.

Look at which additional pesticides should be added to trigger list aside from chlorpyrifos and diazinon.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Final Order 2012 http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/rwqcb3/water_issues/programs/ag_waivers/docs/ag_order/final_agorder_atta_032612.pdf
  2. Agricultural Regulatory Program
  3. 3.0 3.1 RWQCB Ag Waiver FAQ
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 UCANR
  5. CCRWQCB Agricultural Regulatory Program Overview
  6. Western Farm Press. Conditional ag waiver: What is it?
  7. [1]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Irrigated Ag Order R3-2009-0050.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 [2]
  10. [3]
  11. Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc.
  12. CCRWQCB Present and Potential Beneficial Uses
  13. Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program Program> http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/agriculture/docs/about_agwaivers.pdf
  14. CA State Senate Committee on Environmental Quality, Bill Analysis SB 390.
  15. Surface and Groundwater Quality Impairment http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb3/water_issues/programs/ag_waivers/docs/ag_preliminary_report.pdf
  16. Central Coast Water Quality Preservation
  17. Central Coast Ambient Monitoring Program
  18. California Department of Water Resources
  19. California Department of Public Health
  20. Monterey County Water Resources Agency
  21. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  22. Central Coast Water Quality Coalition
  23. Monterey Coastkeeper



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