Regional regulatory approaches to agricultural runoff in California

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In California, several regulatory options exist to limit agricultural contributions to water quality impairment. The California Water Code requires some combination of Waste Discharge Requirement (WDRs), conditional waivers of WDRs (ag waivers) and/or basin plan prohibitions. WDRs and conditional waivers are adopted as permits and requirements and can include discharge prevention, implementation of management practices, water quality monitoring, remediation and reporting. WDRs implement applicable water quality control plans to protect receiving waters and consider beneficial uses, suitable water quality objectives, nuisance prevention and other waste discharges [1]. Although waivers of WDRs are less intensive, permitting requirements are not simply abandoned; rather permittees must follow a certain set of conditions specified in the conditional waiver that are designed to avoid water quality violations while the waiver can be terminated at any time [2]. The conditional waiver does not hinder the need for other required permits and does not prevent the establishment of additional requirements as authorized by the California Water Code. A prohibitions approach simply restricts certain types of discharges such as municipal, industrial or hazardous wastes while the level of discharge risk to water quality determines the requirements of WDRs and ag waivers [1]. The Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act 1969 is the primary law regulating the quality of both surface and ground waters. This Act makes the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) the agency responsible for water quality planning statewide and grants the Regional Water Quality Control Boards (RWQCBs) authority. The RWQCBs are responsible for the enforcement of WDRs, ag waivers and prohibitions. California contains nine Water Quality Control Regions, each regulated by its own RWQCB. Therefore each region regulates discharge from agricultural irrigation independently with different conditions and variations of the required regulatory approaches [3].

Current ag waivers

Currently, four regions (Central coast, Los Angeles, Central Valley and San Diego) have adopted conditional ag waivers for irrigated agricultural lands [4].

Characteristics of Various Regulatory Approaches[1]

WDRs (ag waivers) Conditional Waivers of WDRs
Permit Type Individual or General Usually General
Risk of Discharges Moderate Low
Management Practices Not Prescribed May be Prescribed
Monitoring and Reporting High Low
Fee Yes Yes
Expiration No - Open ended renewal depending on program effectiveness Yes – Reviewed, revised, replaced, or reissued every 5 years


The 9 RWQCBs for California are listed below:

Region 1 -- North Coast

Region 2 -- San Francisco

Region 3 -- Central coast

Region 4 -- Los Angeles

Region 5 -- Central Valley

Region 6 -- Lahontan

Region 7 -- Colorado River Region

Region 8 -- Santa Ana

Region 9 -- San Diego

Regional Commonalities

Regional Differences

Each RWQCB is tailored to a specific region. The regulations that are then established are also specific to a region's environmental settings. Listed below are regulatory differences between the regions:

Region 1 -- Central Coast

Irrigated lands include:

  • row crops
  • vineyards
  • orchards
  • pasture
  • marijuana cultivation

Major concerns in the region include:

  • polluted runoff (sediments, manure, fertilizers, pesticides)
  • groundwater pollution
  • erosion
  • flooding
  • threats to riparian vegetation and wildlife

A new regulatory program called the Water Quality Compliance Program for Discharges from Irrigated Lands (Program) is being developed to supplement existing TMDL program and will likely involve a combination of conditional prohibitions, WDRs and conditional waivers of WDRs.

Technical Assistance

The following organizations provide a wide range of information, tools and guidance to assist California growers in water management and discharge reduction:[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Water Quality Compliance Program Initial Program Framework
  2. Vineyards and Waivers
  3. Some text copied from Conditional waiver of waste discharge requirements for irrigated lands
  4. New Ag Waivers



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