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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

California: The BIOS Project - Improving Conditions in Agricultural Watersheds



The Biologically Integrated Orchard System (BIOS) project is a community-based pollution prevention program that uses biological methods to replace chemical farming practices. It began in 1993 to help California almond growers and other farmers lessen their reliance on synthetic pesticides.

Initiating changes in agricultural watersheds depends in part on finding management measures that not only use natural resources efficiently but also protect and enhance the environment. An example of a successful management practice is underway in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys in central California. Individual farmers, experimenting with various methods to increase production, improve quality, reduce costs, and enhance environmental conditions, are discovering a cost-cutting alternative to synthetic pesticides. The new method grows crops efficiently and makes a significant contribution to water pollution control.

Most almond growers have relied on organophosphate pesticides, especially diazinon, to protect their crops. Diazinon, however, has been identified by state and federal agencies as a significant pollutant in the Central Valley's Sacramento, San Joaquin, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers. As a result, some chemicals have been taken off the market, and costs are rising on others. In addition, the University of California has had data for over a decade showing that almond production systems that rely on biological control and less toxic pesticides produce as much quality and total yield as those using diazinon and other organophosphates.

In 1988, two almond growers -- Glen Anderson, whose farm was organic, and his brother Ron, who farmed conventionally -- decided to find out whether their different methods produced different yields. Lennie Hendricks, a farm adviser with the Merced County Cooperative Extension, compared the two orchards and found little difference in the number of rejected almonds. Other growers followed the Andersons' example and their combined experience provided the basis for BIOS.

Participating growers adopt a whole-system management approach taht in effect provides each grower with a new roster of management tools.

The BIOS project provides the information, expertise, and support needed to help California almond growers move from reliance on pesticides to biological farming practices. BIOS was founded in 1993 by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers Foundation (CAFF), the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and the Merced County Cooperative Extension. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides funding through its Agricultural Initiative Program and a section 319 partnership with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

How BIOS works

CAFF recruits farmers into three-year projects. Those recruited operate farms that vary in size, soil types, irrigation systems, and chemical inputs. Each farmer enrolls 20 to 30 acres in a regional project, and each project has 20 to 30 enrollees. Each project is managed by a team composed of local farmers, pest control advisers, project/farmer organizers, and a Cooperative Extension agent. This team provides financial incentives and technical assistance to help the grower and pest control advisor create a customized farm management plan for each BIOS parcel.

Participating growers adopt a whole-system management approach that in effect provides each grower with a new roster of management tools. The approach considers all aspects of production: tillage practices; nutrient, water, and pest management; and soil and water issues in the larger landscape. For example, BIOS uses cover crops, compost, and other natural fertilizers to decrease soilborne pest problems and promote soil health. It uses biological controls cover crops, natural areas, and hedgerows to provide habitat for predators and beneficial insects, and to reduce or even eliminate plant diseases and pests; and finally, it relies on monitoring and observation to determine when and if a least harmful chemical should be applied.

BIOS also facilitates the exchange of information among farmers, pest control advisers, and researchers who are developing these systems in their counties. In the past, only a few farmers had access to this information or were willing to depart from customary farming methods. Now with university, government, and industry partners, BIOS encourages farmers to share both risk and information. Participants in a BIOS project learn through a comprehensive program of field days, ongoing problem-solving meetings, visits from the management team, program updates, field notes, and other educational materials.

BIOS continues to attract additional partners and new funding sources, including state and local agencies, USDA agencies, private and corporate sponsors, foundations, and the Almond Commodity Board of California. Its environmental benefits are significant:

  • To date, 69 almond growers and 20 walnut growers have about 10,514 acres under BIOS-type management.
  • The BIOS soil-building program increases the soil's capacity to hold and filter water.
  • Its cultivation of biological pest management alternatives reduces the use of herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides, and therefore, their occurrence in air and water.
  • Its use of cover crops and hedgerows provides habitats and enhances biodiversity.
  • BIOS practices reduce dust and the incidence of airborne organic compounds, thereby improving air quality in the Central Valley.

BIOS projects are established among almond growers in Merced, Stanislaus, Madera, and San Joaquin counties, and among walnut growers in Yolo and Solano counties. As word spreads of their success, other BIOS-style projects are being developed by other organizations, including projects for prune systems, wine grapes, and raisins.

CONTACT: Sam Ziegler
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9
(415) 744-1990

Stream Restoration in Huichica Creek -
Protecting Shrimp Habitat

Much of the Huichica Creek, California, watershed -- formerly known for its dairies and cattle -- is classic Napa Valley wine country; and the creek itself, a tributary to the Napa Marsh State Wildlife Area and San Pablo Bay (about 25 miles north of San Francisco), provides habitat for an endangered freshwater shrimp.

Sediment problems, originally caused by overgrazing and poor dairy practices and later by the grape growers' hillside tillage practices, including vertical tillage, have seriously destabilized the creek. As a result, runaway down-cutting of the stream channel, collapsing streambanks, and increased braiding threaten not only the creek but also the shrimp and ultimately the grapes. However, stakeholders in the watershed are using strong leadership, dedicated grower interest, and participation coupled with technical and financial assistance from state and federal agencies to provide a solution to these problems.

A winning situation

A restoration plan is now being implemented with section 319 funds. It uses bioengineering techniques and revegetation with native plants to stabilize the streambanks; in-stream checks to reduce the stream gradient where necessary; and new, lower elevation flood terraces to carry high flows and prevent streambank erosion.

Project managers quickly discovered that repairing streambanks is only a partial solution. Controlling sediments from upland areas is critical to protect the work. Mutually acceptable solutions to upland sediment control include changes in land management practices, among them redirecting vertical rows and adding cross-slope diversions, terraced planting, runoff control through terrace backsloping, and planting grass between vineyard rows. Agencies, landowners, and managers worked together to develop a "Natural Resource Protection and Enhancement Plan."

Sediment problems are less threatening when the experience and ingenuity of landowners and managers are combined with the technical abilities and assets of government agencies.

This plan emphasizes land uses that benefit the owners economically, even as they protect and enhance the watershed's natural resources. Sediment problems are less threatening when the experience and ingenuity of landowners and managers are combined with the technical abilities and assets of government agencies.

As sedimentation decreases, the shrimp habitat increases as expected. A more surprising spin-off of this project has been the value added to the grape harvests. When grapevines grow too vigorously, they produce too much leaf cover, which can rob the grapes of flavor. Planting grass between the rows not only helps control erosion, it also reduces the leaf cover, thereby enhancing the fruit.

CONTACT: Sam Ziegler
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9
(415) 744-1990


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