State Water Resources Control Board Limits Regulation of On-Farm Composting

Posted on Wednesday, April 15th, 2020 by Guest Blogger
Compost at Good Humus Farm. Photo provided by CAFF.

This blog was written by Dave Runsten, Policy Director at Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF).

The State Water Resources Control Board’s Compost General Order that passed in 2015 presented a regulatory obstacle for on-farm composting, despite the state’s efforts to reduce waste and provide for more ecological farming practices. The Order limited farmers to utilizing feedstocks already on their farms and required anyone using more than 10% manure to invest in significant composting facilities, such a concrete pad, a lined pond for runoff, and professional engineering.

CAFF realized that these rules would prevent most farmers from composting, and so we began an effort to revise the order. We worked with a number of advocates, such as Calla Rose Ostrander, Will Bakx, Jane Sooby at CCOF, Brian Shobe at CalCAN, and Ryan Flaherty at Sustainable Conservation. We collaborated with students at the UC Berkeley Goldman School to investigate the various regulatory agencies and propose some solutions. We developed an approach that allowed farmers to bring feedstocks onto their farms, including manure, and that limited farmers’ obligations to a set of best management practices. And this is the approach that was ultimately elaborated by the staff and adopted by the board on April 7 (see below for the text of the Agricultural Exemption).

As a result of this decision, from the Water Board’s point of view, farmers are not required to get a separate permit for composting, but instead can operate on-farm composting under the Irrigated Lands program or the Dairy Order, and they can:

  • Make unlimited quantities of compost for their own use—not exceeding 25,000 cubic yards of feedstocks and compost on the farm at any one time
  • Bring on feedstocks from off the farm, including manure
  • Sell or give away up to 5,000 cubic yards of finished compost
  • Implement a set of best management practices in lieu of costly infrastructure

Though the revised Water Board order allows the sale of up to 5,000 cubic yards per year, CalRecycle regulations limit that sale to 1,000 cubic yards. The Water Board increased the quantity to assist the dairy industry in moving manure off the farm. Water quality impacts on groundwater by the dairies is mainly a result of the over-application of raw manure to silage crops and giving them another outlet for the manure would help. CAFF had not identified crop farmers who were composting who wanted to sell compost, so this was not our focus. Nevertheless, these different regulations need to be harmonized by the agencies, and as part of that process we would suggest that having farmers notify CalRecycle of their composting operations and be inspected by LEAs would not be overly burdensome.

The state has identified 13 Federal and State agencies that have some regulatory power over on-farm composting and they have created an on-farm composting working group to try to align regulations and facilitate the practice. The Air Quality Management Districts are an example of another potential hurdle. Local governments also have control over land use, which can present further obstacles. CAFF will continue to work to promote the Water Board’s approach with the various agencies. We hope to eventually be able to hold field days and to disseminate to farmers information about both the Water Board’s best management practices as well as the FDA/National Organic Program rules for making compost.

There is no doubt that over the years, the development of the Healthy Soils program at CDFA helped lead to revision of the Water Board’s order. Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffit at CDFA was always present to express the support of CDFA for these revisions and the interest of the State in Healthy Soils. CAFF thanks the State Water Board and CDFA for encouraging more sustainable farming practices.

Agricultural Exemption from Revised State Water Resources Control Board Compost General Order, April 7 2020 (part 30, pp. 13-14)

  1. The following activities are unlikely to degrade water quality if the management practices noted below are implemented and are therefore conditionally exempt from this General Order. However, the Regional Water Board may determine individual WDRs are appropriate under site-specific conditions.  Conditionally exempt composting operations may be subject to other federal, state, or local regulations. Composting operations that occur on farm or are part of agricultural, horticultural, aquaculture, silvicultural, floricultural, vermicultural, or viticultural activities are conditionally exempt if all the following conditions are met:

a. The facility receives, processes, and stores less than 25,000 cubic yards of a combination of allowable feedstocks, compost (active, curing, and final product), additives and amendments on site at any given time;
b. Feedstocks consist of vegetative agricultural materials, green materials, manure, and/or other material as allowed by the Regional Water Board, but do not include animal carcasses. Examples include manures and bedding, orchard and vineyard prunings, culls and crop residues, and spoiled or unsalvageable food commodities;
c. The resulting compost product is returned to the same site or a property owned by the owner of the composting activity and applied at an agronomic rate; and
d. No more than 5,000 cubic yards of compost final product is given away or sold annually.

Conditionally exempt activities must implement the following best management practices:

  1. Materials and activities on site must not cause, threaten to cause, or contribute to conditions of pollution, contamination, or nuisance;
  2. Activities shall be setback at least 100 feet from the nearest surface water body and/or the nearest water supply well;
  3. Dischargers must implement practices to minimize or eliminate the discharge of wastes that may adversely impact the quality or beneficial uses of waters of the state;
  4. Dischargers must manage the application of water (including from precipitation events) to reduce the generation of wastewater; and
  5. Working surfaces must be designed to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, ponding, infiltration, inundation, and erosion, notwithstanding precipitation events, equipment movement, and other aspects of the facility operations.
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