The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has adopted significant changes to the regulatory framework for salt and nitrate discharges in the Central Valley.

It is common knowledge that the discharge limits set by the Regional Board in most cases are unattainable and unrealistic given the need to continue producing food in the Central Valley and the high, pre-existing background concentrations caused by historic discharges from a wide-variety of operations, including agricultural operations. It is also clear that traditional regulatory practices have failed to reduce salt and nitrate contamination and that this could have dire consequences for groundwater users, including growers. To address these problems, the Regional Board’s CV-SALTS initiative created the Central Valley Salt and Nitrate Management Plan, which will be implemented through Basin Plan Amendments.

The Basin Plan Amendments provide a framework for the Regional Board to achieve 3 goals:

  1. Ensure safe drinking water supplies;
  2. Balance salt and nitrate loadings; and
  3. Create a management program to restore aquifers where reasonable and feasible.

The Basin Plan Amendments include a phased Salt Control Program and a prioritized Nitrate Control Program. These programs will be implemented differently to address the unique challenges posed by salinity and nitrate contamination. However, both will include two compliance pathways: an individual pathway and a group pathway. The individual pathways will consist of significantly tighter regulatory controls. However, under the group pathways, dischargers will be given significantly greater regulatory flexibility and time to achieve the three goals through collaboration and economies of scale. Not surprisingly, the Plan does not guarantee that group pathway participants will be insulated from Regional Board enforcement actions. What’s noteworthy, and making many dischargers nervous, is a mandate to address immediate drinking water needs if nitrate levels in nearby domestic wells or supply wells exceed the drinking water standard. Although the timing is dependent upon a number of factors, including how quickly the Regional Board can issue its Notices to Comply once the Basin Plan Amendments go into effect, it appears that dischargers in high priority areas should anticipate that they may be asked to address any immediate drinking water needs in 2020. This may include providing impacted members of their community with bottled water, point-of-use treatment, new wells, or connections to existing or new community systems.

The Regional Board voted to adopt the Basin Plan Amendments following a public hearing on May 31st. Assuming the Basin Plan Amendments are subsequently approved by the State Water Resources Control Board and the Office of Administrative Law, the Regional Board anticipates issuing Notices to Comply to high priority dischargers in 2019. For additional information regarding CV-Salts and the Salt and Nitrate Management Plan, please contact Nicole R. Gleason at or 916.492.5000.