NORTH COAST -- State water-quality regulators are developing new rules that would require North Coast agricultural property owners or operators to develop, follow and update ongoing, multiyear plans for controlling and reversing erosion into ecologically sensitive waterways.

San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which governs activities connected to waterways that flow to the bay, has released a few stakeholder drafts so far, most recently in February, of a conditional waiver of waste discharge requirements for vineyard facilities in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds.

Building on San Francisco Bay water board work in the past several years to define total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, for sediment and pathogens in the two watersheds, board staff in early 2010 started working toward the conditional waiver framework, under which an owner or property manager would enroll, develop a farm water-quality management plan based on the highest historical runoff from the property then  keep the farm plan up to date for planned projects and changing conditions. 

"It's been through three or four iterations, and it is getting more usable for vineyard owners," said Scott Greenwood-Meinert, a Fairfield-based attorney with Gaw Van Male and member of the Napa County Farm Bureau's Natural Resources Committee.

The original version put out for public discussion a year ago was based on the decade-old conditional waiver program for the San Joaquin River watershed, which he said doesn't account for the high percentage of North Coast winegrape growers that participate in one or more rigorous land-stewardship certification programs such as Napa-based Fish Friendly Farming and the San Francisco-based Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program.

"The regional water board is really listening to the industry on the workability of the program," Mr. Greenwood-Meinert said.

Meanwhile, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is developing an agricultural activities permitting program for all the Northern California watersheds that flow to the ocean. The effort began in December with the creation of a stakeholder group of more than 60 regulators, resource agency representatives, agricultural scientists, trade groups, farmers and environmentalists.

Smaller subgroups have met a couple of times, and the whole group is set to meet June 26 to discuss water-quality risk criteria and tiering of requirements accordingly, according to David Leland, chief of the North Coast water board's watershed protection division. A draft program is set for public comment next spring and potential regional board adoption by the end of 2013.

"We don't have a permitting program for vineyards or agriculture per se," Mr. Leland said. "We're talking about ongoing operations versus construction operations, which are covered by other permits."

Both the San Francisco Bay and North Coast proposed permitting programs would be in addition to existing county, state and federal rules to limit erosion during grading for new vines, reconfiguration of vineyard rows and facilities construction, such as the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approval in April of upgrading existing vineyard and orchard grading rules to limit tree removal and bar planting on erosion-prone slopes. Napa County has similar hillside vineyard restrictions.

"Water board activity adds another layer that does not have much to do with production but with compliance," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "There will be some changes required to vineyards, but many of the things related to new plantings and replanting the (revised county) vineyard ordinance would go a long way to dealing with the issues in the agricultural waiver."

The San Francisco Bay and North Coast programs are the outgrowth of a 2004 decision by the State Water Resources Control Board to reduce "nonpoint sources," or contributors over a large area, of impaired water quality from sediment, pathogens and algae nutrients carried into creeks after rains as well as raising water temperature through practices such as removal of riparian foliage. Those are linked to dwindling populations of protected steelhead and salmon.

North Coast, San Francisco Bay and Santa Ana regional water boards are the only ones in the state that haven't developed programs to control nonpoint-source pollution discharge permitting programs.

The North Coast and San Francisco Bay water boards are considering the use of a third-party certification authority to collect fees and conduct inspections. Featuring prominently in discussions for such a role is Fish-Friendly Farming and the administrator of the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, started by San Francisco-based industry advocate Wine Institute and Sacramento-based trade group California Association of Winegrape Growers, according to people familiar with the meetings.

"We support the idea of a certification program that is implemented and verified by a third party," said Mr. Leland.