On-farm wells must be tested for nitrates and nitrites

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By Vicky Boyd

Beginning this year, landowners with on-farm domestic wells on agricultural land will have to test them for nitrates and nitrites and report the results to the state as part of the Irrigated Lands Management Program.

The well testing is separate from the annual recording of anticipated nitrogen and irrigation applications and reporting of final water and nitrogen use. But both fall under the statewide irrigated lands program designed to address sediment, pesticide and nutrient discharges from irrigated farmland.

The well testing also is new this year for San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition members, although growers in the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition have been required to test domestic wells since 2019.

San Joaquin Farm Bureau First Vice President Ken Vogel, who grows cherries and walnuts near Linden, said he likely will have the same consultant who does his irrigated lands reporting pull the water samples. He has two properties with houses and on-farm domestic wells.

As a small-scale producer, he’s had to hire someone to keep up with the ever-increasing number of water quality and food safety regulations, reports and inspections.

“It’s another layer of regulations you have to do,” Vogel said. “I understand wanting people to be safe, but some things might be done just to do it. I know the well on the house with 1½ acres of walnuts – I grew up in that house. That’s the same well I grew up with.”

SJFB membership benefit

To help members navigate well testing procedures as well as other reporting and testing requirements under the irrigated lands program, SJFB continues to partner with Anteris Agronomics.

Founded by Kion Kashefi and three partners, the company offers services including developing nitrogen and irrigation management plans, collecting and testing drinking water well samples, ensuring regulatory compliance and offering data management. SJFB members will be able to use these services at a discount as another membership benefit.

Although the well results don’t have to be to the state until the end of this year, Kashefi said, “The sooner people take care of it, the better.”

“Growers can sample their well any time they want on their own time or they can have someone sample it for them – that’s their own data. It puts a lot of pressure on the labs and consultants when everyone wants to sample Dec. 15.”

He speaks from experience, having also partnered with Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, whose members have had to test their domestic wells for the past two years.

For the first time, farm evaluation plans this year will ask farmers in the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition how many on-farm domestic wells they have.

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion on this – I can see it coming,” Kashefi said of the San Joaquin County requirement. “I could see farmers who took their wells out of the order by providing bottled water could have some questions of how they report that on the farm evaluation plans.”

If on-farm domestic wells no longer provide water for cooking or drinking, landowners don’t have to monitor for nitrogen, according to the Central Valley Water Board. But they need to keep records, such as bottled water receipts, showing they were not used as domestic water sources.

That’s where Artemis can help answer questions and provide guidance, Kashefi said. Not only is he an agronomist, but he also keeps up with the Central Valley Water Board’s latest changes and interpretations to the irrigated lands program.

“The biggest part of our business is for the nitrogen management plan,” Kashefi said. “At the end of the day, these large growers who have seven different ranches don’t want to mess with it. That’s the main reason we started the company.”

Mike Wackman, executive director of the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition, said he has fielded a number of questions already from growers. The well testing is separate from the nitrogen management plans and is directly managed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, so coalitions are not involved.

When growers call, Wackman said he still tries to answer questions about well testing or point them in the right direction.

Dave Simpson, who farms winegrapes near Lodi, said he planned to pull his own water samples. Having done so as part of a college water quality engineering course, Simpson said he knows there are specific procedures to follow, including maintaining chain of custody and proper handling.

He said it would have been nice if the water board had included sampling instructions in an earlier notice about the requirements sent to coalition members.

He recently had a new pressure tank installed on their on-farm domestic well, so he planned to wait a month to let things settle before sampling.

“I’ll ask them to run it for more than just nitrates,” said Simpson, SJFB Water Committee chairman. “I want to know what’s in that water.”

Water sampling and reporting

The Central Valley Water Board does have instructions deep within its website (https://bit.ly/3ipYiG6) about how to obtain sample bottles and chain-of-custody forms from laboratories, how to collect water samples and where to send them. The sampling can be done either by landowners or by consulting firms, such as Anteris.

Only ELAP – Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program – laboratories certified for nitrate and nitrite-as-nitrogen testing can be used.

And unlike the end-of-season nitrogen/irrigation use report, which is sent to the water quality coalition, water testing results are sent directly from the testing laboratory to the state.

The lab creates a unique global identification number for each well that is then entered into the state’s GeoTracker database. Each well is identified through an APN – assessor’s parcel numbers. Once the lab uploads results to the state GeoTracker database, they also become public.

What do nitrate thresholds mean?

The California Department of Public Health set the state drinking water standard for nitrate at 45 mg/L as nitrate or 10 mg/L as nitrogen. The department also set a state drinking water standard for nitrite at 1 mg/L. Since the toxicity of nitrate and nitrite are additive, the department also established a standard for the sum of nitrate + nitrite as nitrogen at 10 mg/L.

The concern is high nitrate levels may interfere with red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen in the body. It’s most dangerous to infants who consume high nitrate levels, resulting in the potentially life-threatening “blue baby syndrome.”

If your nitrate + nitrite as nitrogen results are below 8 mg/L, you must sample annually and maintain that level for three consecutive years under the irrigated lands program. After that, you may sample once every five years.

If your results are equal to or greater than 8 mg/L and less than or equal to 10mg/L, you must sample annually.

If your first-year sample result was greater than 10 mg/L, you must notify all water users within 10 days using the state-approved drinking water notification template. It includes the sample results and warns users not to drink any well water and instead use only bottled water.

You also need to send a signed copy of the notification to the Central Valley Water Board; then you can stop further sampling.