Aerial view of fields in western San Joaquin Valley suffering from severe salinization. Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA

WATER ASSOC. OF KERN COUNTY: The nuts and bolts of the CV-SALTS program

Presentation at Kern County event discusses the implementation of the newly-adopted salt and nitrate management plan for the Central Valley

On October 16, 2019 the State Water Resources Control Board voted to approve the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s amendments to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Basin Plan and the Tulare Lake Basin Plan to incorporate a Central Valley-wide Salt and Nitrate Control Program based on what was developed through the stakeholder-led CV-SALTS process.

An evaporation pond in Kings County. Photo by
Dale Kolke / CDWR

The Basin Plan amendments were adopted by the Central Valley Water Board on May 31, 2018 (Resolution R5-2018- 0034).

The Salt and Nitrate Control Program provides a new framework for the Regional Water Board to regulate salt and nitrate, while also ensuring a safe drinking water supply. The amendments represent the most significant changes in decades to the regulation of salts and nitrates in the surface and ground waters of Central Valley.

At a breakfast event hosted by the Water Association of Kern County shortly after the amendments were adopted, a panel discussed what the program means for dischargers in the Central Valley.  The panel speakers were Clay Rodgers, Assistant Executive Officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board; Tess Dunham, an attorney with Somach Simmons & Dunn, and Richard Meyerhoff, a water quality specialist with GEI Consultants.

Here’s what they had to say.


The program began with an overview from Clay Rodgers, Assistant Executive Officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board who oversees operations in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and has been involved with the CV-SALTS program for several years.

Clay Rodgers began with the background on how things got to where they are.

I think what got us here is about 150 years of significant changes to the San Joaquin Valley – changes of the landscapes, the land uses, and hydrologic conditions,” he said.  “We’ve modified the valley and we’ve changed how water works.  It’s intensively agricultural which has led to a great economy and great things for the Valley, but there are some side effects of that.

The increased agriculture population growth and the reengineered water distribution system means that we use water a lot.  When we use water and we also use a lot of fertilizers and chemicals growing our crops and doing the things we do, some of those have made their way into our groundwater and surface water.”

The problem is exacerbated in the Tulare Lake Basin because it is a basin that is closed hydrologically, meaning there isn’t any natural flow of water out of the basin anymore.  Historically, before the water system was reengineered, it would drain in very wet years, he said.  Now as we use the water, the salts accumulate as the water evaporates but the salts stay behind, which tends to concentrate the salts over time.


Communities, industry, and agriculture all rely on the surface and groundwater to support those beneficial uses so it’s important to protect them for generations to come.

The water board’s mission is to protect beneficial uses for the long term and for future generations, so it’s more than what happens in the next 20 or 30 years – it’s what happens 100 years down the road, which means modifying what we do to some level so that 100 years from now, we have the legacy that our children and grandchildren have to live with,” Mr. Rodgers said.

The CV SALTS program addresses the concentration of both salts and nitrates as they are accumulating and exceeding the water quality objectives; the objectives are set in policy by the Water Boards and are the standards we want to achieve.  There are also Maximum Contaminant Levels (or MCLs) that are set in law at both the federal and state levels.  There continue to be sources of nitrates and salts going into surface and groundwater that exceed both state and federal objectives.

The nitrate problem

Nitrate is an acute problem that is impacting significant numbers of people.  CV-SALTS helps to address that along with some of the actions that the Governor’s office has taken.  Salts, however, are more of a chronic long-term problem that accumulates very slowly over time.   It’s an insidious problem that can become more problematic through time, but it’s extremely costly to correct with technologies that are currently available.

Nitrates have been accumulating for a long time.  For the most part, they are not naturally occurring.  Some low concentrations can occur, but it’s rare.  Mr. Rodgers said he could recall only one instance where they concluded that the nitrates above the MCL were naturally occurring.  Nitrates are a continuing problem which is addressed somewhat through the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program and through nutrient and nitrate management.

The problem with nitrate is that is has health impacts when present in drinking water, especially for pregnant women and infant children.  The areas in red shown on the map are areas of the upper zone of the aquifer in the Southern San Joaquin Valley with nitrates above the Maximum Contaminant Level.  The upper zone is where many or even most of the domestic wells are drawing from; nitrates maybe not be present in every individual well, but in many wells in that area, he said.

Our goal is to see that we minimize the amount of nitrates that get into our groundwater, and CV-SALTS is part of the program to help address those impacts,” said Mr. Rodgers.  “It took us 150 years to get to the problems that we have and it’s not a problem that we’re going to be able to solve overnight.  It’s going to take significant time.  CV-SALTS has a time schedule of 35 years to give time to come up with programs and ways to resolve that, because we don’t have all the answers today.  It’s an iterative process that we’ll have to go through.”

The build up of salts

The source of salts is not so widespread, but nitrates have a very diverse set of sources: fertilizers used in agriculture and diaries as well as the irrigated lands that grow the crops that dairy wastewater and manure is applied to.  Wastewater treatment plants discharge nitrates and salts; industries such as food processors and oil production can also be significant sources.  Septic systems can be a source, but that’s more of a localized problem, but where there are concentrations of septic systems, it can be problematic.

Salt issues are a little bit different.  The map is basically of the same area and it shows where the salt problems are.  The west side of the San Joaquin Valley has salt issues, which is a geologic issue.  The west side is bordered by the Coast Range, whose rocks were originally deposited under marine conditions so they contain a lot of salts themselves.  When there is a lot of runoff from the coast ranges, the salts concentrate, the groundwater tend to be shallow, and there’s been a lot of evaporative concentration of salts over there.

On the east side of the valley, the runoff and drainage off the Sierra Nevada is extremely clean and the water that comes from Sierra streams is of very high quality.  The Friant Kern Canal carries very clean water because brings water from the San Joaquin River at Millerton Lake, so the irrigation sources are at very low salt concentrations.  The east side is very fortunate in having that source of surface water, he said.

More salt enters the Central Valley region than leaves; it’s particularly an issue for the Tulare Basin because it is a closed basin and there isn’t a way to export salts.  Water imported from the State Water Project or from the Delta is a source of salts to the San Joaquin Valley.  The Sacramento area is very fortunate because they have a lot more surface water, so they get a lot more dilution and they don’t import that slightly saline water out of the Delta that is imported into the San Joaquin Valley.

The economic costs are in the billions of dollars so those are pretty staggering numbers when you sit and think about it, but if we don’t find a way to address that, those numbers are going to do nothing but go up,” Mr. Rodgers said.

Salt problems are insidious; they creep up and slowly increase in concentrations over time.  Ancient civilizations have collapsed because the land salted up.

We’ve seen it in agriculture; we have to flush salts out of the root zone in order to keep the salts concentration lower in the root zone and to keep our crops productive,” Mr. Rodgers said.  “When we do that, it eventually flushes the salt to the groundwater where it accumulates.  Salts don’t break down.  Chloride is chloride is chloride.  It’s been here since the dawn of time, it will be here long after we’re all gone, and so there’s no natural solution.”

Working towards a solution

CV SALTS was developed because existing regulatory options to address these issues are very limited and the traditional regulatory program was extremely problematic.

The way the water code was written and the way our policies are written, it basically says that if you can’t meet the water quality objectives, the regional board can’t permit that activity to go forward,” he said.  “A lot of evidence has come to light in the last 20 years that says a lot of the things we do are almost incapable of meeting all the water quality objectives.  A lot of the work that’s been done out of UC Davis and other research organizations basically indicates that even under the best of conditions with fertilizers, crops taking it up is a passive activity and they don’t take up all of the nitrates, so it’s almost impossible to meet the water quality objectives in that shallow groundwater with our traditional farming methods that are available to us today.

Under the traditional permitting approach, it basically says you have to meet the water quality objectives, which in theory would lead to a prohibition of activities such as farming.  Mr. Rodgers said that that’s not an acceptable pathway for the water boards to take, so they worked with stakeholders to come up with an alternative program that gives time to address this.  The Water Board has given a 35-year timeline to implement the program and find a solution.

It’s a little bit technology driven in that we don’t know what all the technologies are today,” he said.  “We had to come up with this because agriculture and other industries might not be able to meet the objectives and the regulatory options are limited.  And also our regulatory options failed to find the solution for people who are being directly impacted by those activities today.”

Goals of the program

Treating for salts and nitrates is expensive, which is particularly problematic for agriculture.  “I grew up on a family farm in Tulare County, and I’ve been a farmer for actually most of my life,” said Mr. Rodgers.  “If our water is too expensive, it creates problem for us that we can’t resolve and it becomes extremely problematic.  So these programs are designed to help us work together.  It’s been a stakeholder-driven process, where significant groups have gotten together and worked on this for over 10 years to come up with this program as the best solution to help us deal with these problems.”

So the CV-SALTS program has two primary goals.  One is economic sustainability; the goal is to work together to address the problem and sustain the current economy and water resources so they are there in the future for our children and our grandchildren to carry on the legacies that we have.  The other goal is to assure safe drinking water for those people who are directly impacted.

The basin plan amendments ensure safe drinking water for those that are impacted.  The amendments provide alternatives to how the water board regulates salts and nitrates; they limit and manage the degradation which is the slow lessening of water quality; and restore the groundwater where it’s feasible and practicable.

The amendments recognize that we have extremely diverse conditions, so what works in one spot may not work everywhere and we need to come up with solutions that will lead to the right answers so we can continue to do the things that we do,” said Mr. Rodgers.

TESS DUNHAM: The nitrate program

The next part of the program focused on the nitrate control program.  Tess Dunham is an attorney at the firm of Somach Simmons and Dunn and she has been working on CV-SALTS for many years.  She represents the Central Valley Salinity Coalition, who are the group of dischargers that have been part of the stakeholder process for the CV-SALTS project.  The coalition includes irrigated land programs, food processors, wineries, publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants, oil and gas districts, and others; it’s basically the discharger community who are being directly regulated by the water board and through this program.

We were looking to mold and develop a policy that would allow us to continue our operations legally and still try to address the issues we needed to address,” said Ms. Dunham.  “I grew up as a farmer.  My family is still in farming up in the Sacramento Valley, so I have been working in the agriculture industry for a number of years and represent a number of the irrigated land programs throughout California.

Nitrates – an increasing concern

With respect to nitrates, the underlying issue from a regulatory standpoint is that the State Water Board back in 1988 adopted a policy that basically said that all water in California, both surface and groundwater, will be considered to be able to support the municipal, domestic drinking water use, unless it specifically says otherwise in the basin plans.  There are some areas in the Tulare Lake basin that are not designated for municipal use, but those are specifically spelled out in the basin plan.

If it has not said it doesn’t have municipal use, then you have to assume that the water board by its policies has to assume that it can support the municipal drinking water use,” Ms. Dunham said.  “If there is the designation for municipal or domestic drinking water use, then the water quality objectives kick in.  The water quality objective for nitrate is 10 milligrams per liter and that is for safe drinking water.

There has been increasing regulatory concern with nitrates over the past several years, she pointed out.  There have been reports from UC Davis, there is an active environmental justice community in the Central Valley looking to protect those who have contaminated drinking water, and the Office of Enforcement at the State Water Board has threatened to issue clean up abatement orders to growers both in the Salinas area and Tulare County area if they don’t provide replacement drinking water.

I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t be doing this; it’s important to have safe drinking water,” Ms. Dunham said.  “There’s this whole flurry of activity that’s been going on out there with respect to nitrate and part of the CV-SALTS process was to try to address that in a more reasonable methodical way through the basin plan amendments to deal with all these issues, so we didn’t have hopscotches of clean up and abatement orders throughout the Central Valley.  This doesn’t impact the Salinas Basin; they are dealing with it on other ways.

Current permitting requirements are ineffective

The map on the slide shows nitrates in the Central Valley, which are highly concentrated in the Tulare, Madera, Merced, and San Joaquin areas, but there some areas of significant nitrate in Kern County as well.

Ms. Dunham explained why the current permitting requirements don’t currently work.  In response to the report by UC Davis, the State Water Board said they would evaluate all waste discharge requirements to make sure they are protecting groundwater from nitrate.  So the State Board for a number of years has issued orders that said that dischargers need to either meet the water quality objective or have a time schedule for how they would meet the water quality objectives, or the board would prohibit the discharge.

The current options are that agricultural dischargers have to show that they can meet the objective of 10 milligrams per liter below the root zone; however, most of the crops grown in California can’t meet that, Ms. Dunham said.   Dischargers could adopt a time-schedule, but the water board has historically been hesitant to adopt time schedules in permits anything longer than 5 to 10 years at most.

What we received in our irrigated lands permits when they were adopted in 2012 and 2013 was basically a ten year time schedule,” she said.  “That as we know for many of our more complex dischargers of the dairy and the agricultural industry, ten years is not enough to determine what the available technology is to be able to grow the crops without exceeding the 10 milligrams per liter below the root zone.”

Another option is to allocate assimilative capacity, which means allowing some degradation up to the water quality objective, but Ms. Dunham pointed out that in many areas, there isn’t any assimilative capacity available.  If there isn’t any assimilative capacity and the schedule can’t go beyond 10 years, the water board is then left with prohibiting the discharge.

That is not an option in the Central Valley,” she said.  “The Water Board does not intend to take away the economic engine here within the Central Valley by prohibiting discharges from agriculture.”

New permitting approach needed

So to address this, the basin plans were amended to give the Board new options for permitting the discharges of nitrate into groundwater throughout the Central Valley by giving them new discretion for an alternative compliance pathway in addition to the existing pathways that will give dischargers 35 years to come into compliance.

Not that we expect the aquifers to restore themselves within 35 years,” said Ms. Dunham.  “We all know that in many cases, that’s nearly impossible, and in 50 years, it would be nearly impossible, so this is not about the aquifer actually meeting 10 milligrams per liter within the time frame, but that we have to show with some type of technology within 35 years that what we discharge below the root zone in agriculture and in the croplands at the diary does not cause or contribute to an exceedance of the receiving water objective of basically about 10 milligrams per liter.  So it’s going to be a hard task.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy by any means, but it does legalize our ability to continue to discharge.  Without this, we are not legally compliant with the law.

But there is a tradeoff, she pointed out.  “If we’re going to be allowed to continue to discharge above the water quality objective for up to the next 35 years, we have to assure that people have safe drinking water for nitrates.  The water board said, we can accept this as long as we know that there is emergency, immediate, and long-term plans for making sure that people have safe drinking water, whether it’s through alternative supplies in the short-term, whether it’s consolidations and getting current groundwater systems hooked up to a surface water systems, whether it’s wellhead treatment, point of use, point of entry, lots of different options, but people have to have safe drinking water, bottom line.  So we need to preserve agriculture and we need to make sure there is safe drinking water.

The nitrate control program

The nitrate control program sets up a priority for focusing first on providing safe drinking water; it then provides the Regional Board with new options that allows for time needed to address nitrate and looks to address nitrate in groundwater over the long-term.

In my mind, and this is the lawyer in me, it expands the perceptions with respect to the time and complexity of discharges of nitrate,” Ms. Dunham said.  “The regional board typically gets really goosey about adopting any compliance schedule beyond ten years.  Very rarely does it happen.  But in this basin plan amendment, there is now the acknowledgement by the State Water Board and the regional board that they accept that the discharge of nitrate from some sources such as agriculture, dairies, and others will take longer than 10 years to try to address.”

The new basin plan amendment allows the water board to adopt exceptions for meeting nitrate water quality objective in groundwater to discharge above 10 milligrams per liter for up to 35 years.  The board will be looking at things on a localized basis and a discharger-type basis to determine what is appropriate, but it is up to a maximum of up to 35 years without amending the basin plan again.  This can be done on a cooperative management zone basis, instead of by individual permit by permit basis so dischargers can work together to determine how to do this collectively.

The program will be implemented in phases.  The basins shown in red on the slide at the lower left are the first priority basins who will receive notices to comply first.  The basins in yellow will receive their notices two to four years later, and the basins in green will be phased in at a later date.

There are two different permitting option strategies.  The first pathway is the typical individual permitting pathway, and the second pathway is to be part of a management zone.

The individual permitting approach

The individual permitting approach was maintained because not every area will be part of a management zone nor can the water board cannot mandate that a discharger join a management zone.

Dischargers who choose this approach must be able to show their discharges are below 10 milligrams per liter before it gets to the groundwater basin.

The management zone permitting approach

A discharger can get an exception from meeting the objectives by joining a management zone with other dischargers within that zone, such as oil production facilities, food processing facilities, irrigated ag, dairies, and others to work together.   The dischargers all basically receive the exception collectively and have a shared responsibility for implementation.

But, as a part of that, dischargers have to assure safe drinking water.  So if within the management zone, if there is a small community or domestic wells that have groundwater that exceeds 10 milligrams per liter, the dischargers need to work with those communities to determine a plan for making sure that the users of that water have safe drinking water.

Early Action Plans

There must be early action plans to address drinking water and set forth how they will ensure people have safe drinking water.

It’s already started,” she said.  “Some of you may know that a couple years ago, the office of enforcement sent out letters to 27 landowners on the east side of Tulare County that said help take care of drinking water or we’re going to send you a clean up and abatement order, and here’s the draft cleanup and abatement order, in case you want to know what it looks like.  So in response to that, the three irrigated lands coalitions in that area – the Tule, the Kings, and Kaweah – came together and reached a settlement agreement with the Office of Enforcement that basically says we will work on preparing and providing kiosks and some backup bottled water throughout our coalition area as part of the settlement, and in exchange, you will take away that threatened cleanup and abatement against those 27 landowners.  They are in the process of implementing that settlement agreement, and this is a picture of the Farmersville kiosk that has been developed by the Kaweah coalition.”

As for funding, the program doesn’t mandate that individual dischargers fund all of it; they may seek out federal, state, and local funding to help fund those drinking water solutions, but they are responsible for making sure that solutions become available.

Even though a lot of the discharge of nitrate may be a legacy source, we are still contributing, so I think that you will find an expectation by the regulators that the early action plans at the very least are going to be heavily funded by the discharge community,” Ms. Dunham said.

Management zones and SGMA

Ms. Dunham then discussed how management zones compare with SGMA.  SGMA is about what’s coming out of the ground and CV-SALTS is about what’s going in the ground; that is the primary difference between the two.  How does it line up?

The management zone is a regulatory construct in the basin plan; it is not in the water code, but it is now in the regulation that the water board implements.  “It’s a defined area that has some flexibility but it’s going to have to make sense and the water board is going to have the final say as to whether your management zone works,” she said.  “It’s a discharge cooperative; it’s basically dischargers contractually agreeing to work together to address nitrate discharge as well as drinking water within the management zone are and develop short-term and long-term plans for how to do that.  It is the collective implementation of ensuring that water users within the groundwater area have safe drinking water.”

A Groundwater Sustainability Agency is statutory and specifically laid out in the California Water Code.  It is the local management entity with the authority to manage and regulate groundwater use in the basin, and there is state intervention if the local agencies or JPAs don’t come together.  The basin has 20 years after adoption of a groundwater sustainability plan to reach sustainability.

There are differences in the authorities.  The management zone is regulatory, while GSAs are statutory.  Management zones are contractual and they can be a local agency but they don’t have to be.  With management zones, the regional water board ensures implementation by putting permit requirements in the discharger’s permits.  Their control is over the discharger, whereas with the Groundwater Sustainability Agency, the control is over the groundwater user.  The GSA can impose fees, whereas a management zone is going to have to come up with its own financing mechanism to determine how they are going to do all of this collectively.

As to their formation, they are both locally led and oftentimes, a lot of the same people.  “The dischargers are also often those who are using groundwater, so we’re all working with the same group of folks,” Ms. Dunham said.  “As we all know, farmers don’t like to be charged twice for the same thing, so how are we going to do this to make sure we are being efficient and effective for both of these new laws?

Next steps for the nitrate control program

There are a lot of specifics to the timing with respect to management zones.  The State Water Board adopted the basin plan amendments on October 16; they now must be accepted and approved by the Office of Administrative Law which is anticipated to happen in early 2020, maybe as early as January.

Once approved by the Office of Administrative Law, the regional water board will send out notices to comply to dischargers within the priority areas.  For priority 1 areas, the management zone proposals have to be but together within 270 days after receipt of the notice to comply.  Priority 2 areas will have a year for the management zone proposal once they receive the notice to comply.  The first management zone implementation plans are likely to come before the water board for consideration most likely in the Fall of 2021.

This is not going to be an easy process, so I encourage you to think about it now,” said Ms. Denham.  “We have some pilot projects that are going within the Turlock area and in the Kings Alta Irrigation District area and we’re hoping we can develop tools for the different areas, but there will be a short time period to put together those proposals, which has to include an early action plan for addressing intermediate drinking water needs.”

This is a big deal,” she said.  “It’s a new day for how we manage groundwater in California, from SGMA, GSAs, and GSPs, overlay that with the basin plan amendments for salts and nitrates specifically, and the management zone and the impetus for making sure that people have safe drinking water.  This is not a small task, and I realize it’s daunting for all of us.  But what does it bring to us?  It gives us the ability to discharge and farm and have our operations be legal, even though it’s going to be very difficult.  Without this, dischargers would basically be exposed for not being able to comply with the water board’s regulations.  Ultimately, it’s not easy, but it does give to us a pathway to be able to continue our operations in a legal manner.”

RICHARD MEYERHOFF: The salt program

In the last portion of the program, Richard Meyerhoff, a water quality specialist with GEI Consultants who has been working on the CV-SALTS for about 7 years, reviewed the salt portion of the program,  shown on the right side of the graphic.

The salt program will be implemented in parallel with the nitrate program.  The key difference between the two is that the nitrate program has prioritized implementation in terms of rollout and schedule; salt, on the other hand, is a phased program that is expected to roll out over a much more lengthy period of time.  Mr. Meyerhoff said the salt program could take 30 years or longer, but there are stipulations in the regulations to allow for longer periods to occur in different phases, depending on how the work is going and what progress is being made.

Salts are being treated differently because at the time of doing the basin plan amendment regulations, not enough was known to establish a program.  There also is not a drinking water driver with salts, while nitrates have health impacts, which is why nitrate was elevated to a higher priority for implementation.

The purpose of the program is to figure out to manage salt to achieve long-term sustainability in the Central Valley.

When I talk about long-term sustainability, it’s very simple in the sense that the basin plan states the amount of salt that goes in is equal to the amount of salt that goes out just to achieve sustainability,” Mr. Meyerhoff said.  “We’re not talking about restoration; we’re talking about achieving sustainability.”

Phase 1 will be kicking off soon with the Prioritization and Optimization Study (or PNO study) which is expected to take 10 to 15 years.  The study is being designed right now on a ten year schedule, but there is discretion in the regulation that if the Board deems good progress is being made but more time is needed, the timeline can be extended up to 5 additional years.

The Prioritization and Optimization Study has a set of criteria that must be met to fulfill its purpose under regulation; the criteria are listed on the lower left slide.  The study will look at non-physical projects such as developing new BMPs or establishing new regulations and policies, and physical projects such as infrastructure and other types of capital projects which are much more significant and costly to implement.

Part of the effort through this first phase of the program is to figure out what projects need to be implemented and where to facilitate achieving sustainability,” he said.

The second phase will be to implement the non-physical projects and get everything in place to construct the physical projects; it’s expected to take roughly 10 – 15 years.  The third phase will be focused on construction of projects, although he noted that some projects may go to construction sooner than phase three.

How the salt program will be implemented

The salt program is part of the basin plan amendments that were adopted by the State Water Board on October 16, and will become effective upon approval by the Office of Administrative Law.

Within one year after the regulations become effective, all dischargers in the entire Central Valley will receive a notice to comply with the salt program.  It is a separate notice to comply than that from the nitrate program.  Each permittee will have six months to make a decision; they can choose one of two compliance pathways: the conservative permitting approach or the alternative permitting approach.

For the conservative pathway, the permittee must demonstrate to the board through appropriate documentation that they can meet the conservative effluent limits of 700 μS/cm Electrical Conductivity for agriculture use and 900 μS/cm Electrical Conductivity for municipal and domestic supplies.  These are considered very stringent numbers, particularly for the agricultural side.  They also must be able to demonstrate no degradation; the discharge cannot impact the receiving water.  The permittee must be able to demonstrate compliance with the existing facilities in place.  The Central Valley Water Board has limited discretion to authorize new or expanded allocation of assimilative capacity or a compliance or time schedule order under this permitting option.  The CV-SALTS program is preparing guidance documents for those dischargers who are considering this approach.

There are various compliance strategies that are out there, but many of these will not be available under this program if you choose a conservative permitting approach,” said Mr. Meyerhoff.

It’s expected a lot of dischargers will not be able to comply with that approach and so similar to the nitrate program, there is an alternative permitting approach which is to participate in the PNO study.  The discharger documents to the Board that they are financially supporting the PNO study and by doing so, they are in compliance with their permit.  The study is expected to last at least ten years and while the discharger has to participate financially, they can also participate as a stakeholder.  The discharger must also continue to maintain the existing salt management program.

The Central Valley Salinity Coalition is the designated lead entity to set up and manage the program, and they are currently working on the financial structure and the fee schedule.

There’s a lot of interest in taking this approach here because it also puts you in the position of being a participant in solving the problem down the road as time moves on,” he said.

The Prioritization and Optimization Study

The basin plan amendment does include specific requirements for the study, and the CV-SALTS program is taking the list in the regulation and develop a specific workplan with subtasks so it is ready to be implemented as quickly as possible once the program becomes effective.

The slide on the lower left lists the milestones and deliverables of the study.

The slide on the right shows the anticipated workplan process.  The first part of the optimization study is to complete the Central Valley salinity evaluation.  Although they could treat the Central Valley as one large planning area, they will be defining planning areas as it is anticipated that there will be multiple areas that will want to work collectively in groups to achieve the goals of the program.

Then, there will be a stepwise process to identify and evaluate alternatives to come up with a preferred program for that area.  Meanwhile, there will be studies and research to provide the information to develop these plans.  There’s a whole stakeholder component that’s required by the regulation that is built in to provide an opportunity for people to participate.

The study has four main tasks.  The first task is task 1 is stakeholder outreach and communication.    “There are different ways and different levels to participate and there’s no requirement,” Mr. Meyerhoff said.  “But if you’re going to fund it, I would assume many people would want to participate in some form or fashion.”

Task 2 is about the programmatic aspects, such as workplan management, reporting, funding, and governance.

Task 3 is to evaluate surface and groundwater and determine how to divide up the Central Valley into planning areas, perform the necessary studies and sustainability analyses, and begin to understand what needs to be done in different areas to achieve sustainability.

Task 4 is the alternatives analysis and working through each of them to figure out how to achieve sustainability in future phases.  The idea here is to start with what is being done now or what has been planned and see how to achieve sustainability in the planning area and considering any non-physical projects to determine the gap in terms of sustainability.  This leads to identifying physical projects.

The intent is not to drive everybody into physical projects immediately, but look at what else can you do first and add on to that with physical projects as appropriate,” said Mr. Meyerhoff.  “Figure out what the alternatives are.  We expect there to be multiple alternatives, leading to coming up with the best solution.”

In the end, the intent is to come up with project portfolios for planning areas that include non-physical and physical projects.  The portfolio could even potentially include collaboration between other areas.  For instance, if two planning areas wanted to build a regulated brine line, as some have suggested might be an appropriate solution, they could work collaboratively.

Mr. Meyerhoff then summed up the program.  The program will be initiated through a notice to comply which will be mailed to all dischargers in the Central Valley.  The salt program will start a bit later than the nitrate program, so it will probably be towards the latter part of 2020, could be 2021.  A permitted discharger will have six months to decide on a compliance pathway.  If the conservative approach is chosen, they must document their ability to meet the conservative requirements.  If they choose the alternative pathway, it will mean helping to fund the PNO study, as well as participation and long-term planning for the next ten years.


Audience member asks if anybody has thought about recharging the west side to flush the salts as an option.

That’s a little bit tricky,” said Clay Rodgers.  “It’s far easier to recharge groundwater on the east side because of the soils that are present.  When you get to the west side, you get into clay material and fine-grained layers that restrict the vertical migration.  You have some shallow waters there that are of very poor quality, and then you have the better quality waters below that, so you tend not to produce the really shallow water on the west side because the quality isn’t as good.”

An evaporation pond in Kings County. Photo by
Dale Kolke / CDWR

There is a lot of use of relatively fresh water on the east side from the imported waters that either come in from the Delta or Cross Valley Canal out of the Friant-Kern Canal in Kern County,” he continued.  “The answer I believe, at least as a geologist, is we’ve got to devise a way to get salts out of the basin – a brine line basically.  They have brine lines in the Bay Area and LA that carry salts to the ocean.

Another audience member said he appreciates the mission of sustainability, but it sounds like there’s a need to export salt first to make up for the 150 years that’s built up.  “I’d really hope you get to phase 3 and 4 and get through 1 and 2 fast, because I think phase 3 is the meat of it with the research and the special studies.  Brine export needs to be considered.”

Richard Meyerhoff noted that during the development of the salt and nitrate management plan that supported the CV-SALTS amendments, there were salt studies done and that considered the idea of a regulated brine line.

“They actually mapped out a conceptual what that might look like,” said Mr. Meyerhoff.  “The estimated cost was in the billions, but that was to look at moving salt up to the San Francisco Bay and out that route.  There was some work done by the Bureau of Reclamation a number of years ago, to look at taking it over to the coast.  I’m seeing significant challenges, just environmental challenges, of ever getting something like that permitted, but the option is there, and the work plan for the PNO Study includes reevaluating it.  I hear pros and cons from no, it will never happen, there’s too many regulatory challenges to make it happen versus that’s the only way we’re going to achieve sustainability, so I think that’s going to get a hard look in the next 10 years.”


Explore salinity at the California Water Library

Click here to view these documents full screen.


{{ document.post_title }}

{{ document.publisher }} | {{ document.document_date }}


{{ document.post_content_short }}

Filter Results






Hydrological Region


Daily emailsSign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!

Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email