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Policy Considerations for Managing Agricultural Nitrogen to Reduce Groundwater Contamination in California

California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment (CRAE) | May 28th, 2013


Recent research, including “The California Nitrogen Assessment”1 and the UC Davis Report for the SWRCB SBX2 1 Report to the Legislature2, has produced an important collection of data about how nitrogen compounds move in the environment.

Members of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment (CRAE) share an interest in meaningfully addressing water quality challenges while maintaining a healthy and prosperous agriculture sector. Because of the serious health concerns associated with nitrate in groundwater, CRAE members agree that the immediate goal should be to find cost-effective solutions to cleaning up drinking water supplies or providing safe alternate sources of drinking water to affected communities. We support ongoing efforts, such as the governor’s Drinking Water Task Force, to address this important issue.

While CRAE’s ultimate interest is in addressing the full range of water quality challenges related to agriculture—from drinking water to legacy issues, groundwater to surface water, and nitrate to Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)—and supporting improved nutrient management broadly speaking, the group has chosen to focus specifically on the longer-term challenge of reducing nitrate loading in groundwater from agricultural sources.

Recognizing that a range of research and policy processes to address the harmful impacts of excess reactive nitrogen-based compounds in the environment are ongoing, CRAE stakeholders agreed that a focus on preventing further contamination of groundwater from nitrate is an area where CRAE has a unique opportunity to contribute. Furthermore, we anticipate that approaches to reduce nitrate loading that adhere to the considerations below will simultaneously improve other challenges, including air quality, energy use, and climate change.

Nitrate contamination is projected to increase in the coming years as legacy contributions work their way through the soil profile. The short-term remediation of groundwater basins is so costly as to be practically impossible. Therefore, CRAE has concentrated on intermediate and longer-term groundwater quality issues by helping to find practical solutions to groundwater quality challenges. Reflecting our membership composition, our focus is on the contribution of agricultural sources of nitrate in particular.

CRAE has compiled the following set of key facts on our state of knowledge about nitrogen management and a set of considerations to inform related policy and programs focused on improving water quality.

Keywords

agriculture, drinking water, groundwater contamination, Groundwater Exchange, nitrates

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