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Lawsuit Filed to Regulate Water Pollution from California Logging

Victory: Waiver threatens water quality throughout Sierra
March 18, 2004
Sacramento, CA —

A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today in Superior Court challenging a decision to grant California's logging industry a broad exemption from California's Clean Water Act. The exemption applies to industrial logging operations on public and private land throughout the Sierra and affects the municipal water sources for approximately two-thirds of the state's population.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), DeltaKeeper, and Sierra Club filed the lawsuit and are represented by Earthjustice. The lawsuit was filed charges the Central Valley Regional Water Board, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board – Lahontan Region, and the State Water Resources Control Board with violating the California Environmental Quality Act and the state's water quality control law. These agencies recently issued a broad waiver for hundreds of new logging operations (including clearcuts) to discharge sediment, herbicides, and other pollutants to rivers, streams, and lakes throughout the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades.

"The water boards have taken a very limited exception to the state's water pollution control law and stretched it to the breaking point to allow the logging industry to continue dumping massive quantities of sediment into our rivers, lakes, and reservoirs," said Mike Lozeau of Earthjustice who is representing the coalition in court. "Because the water boards have failed to enforce California's water quality law, we are now asking the Superior Court to step in to do so."

The two regional water boards cover the Sierra Nevada and Cascades and the Central Valley from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. Approximately 45 percent of all industrial logging operations in California occur within the Central Valley watershed, the water supply for the San Francisco Bay Area and an important source for Los Angeles. Each regional board has only assigned one staff person to oversee all logging pollution throughout that vast region. Logging activities discharge soils and organic materials that can lead to increased water temperatures, erosion, and stream sedimentation. Logging operations also use herbicides, pesticides, and oil, all of which can impact aquatic ecosystems and water quality. Logging has been implicated in the degradation of some of California's most precious lakes and rivers, including Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River.

"The water boards have refused to use their authority to strike a reasonable balance between logging and water quality," said Cynthia Elkins of EPIC. "By adopting the waivers, the water boards have decided to protect the logging companies rather than protect and restore our rivers and streams."

Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest landowner in California, owns more than 1.5 million acres in the region and announced three years ago that it is converting 70 percent, or roughly one million acres, of this land into commercial tree plantations. As a result, the number of acres clearcut annually in the Sierra expanded from 943 acres in 1992 to 23,823 acres in 2000, an increase of over 2,400 percent. The regulations that govern logging operations on nonfederal land have been harshly criticized by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect water quality.

Public lands throughout the region also face increased logging as the Bush administration attempts to weaken federal regulations, including the Sierra Framework and the National Forest Management Act.

The Central Valley and Lahontan Water Boards have not fully scrutinized discharges from a logging operation since they adopted similar exemptions in the in 1980s. In 1999, the State of California enacted legislation that automatically terminated all exemptions on January 1, 2003, unless the regional boards reviewed an exemption and determined it could be renewed in the public interest.

"The waivers represent an illegal attempt by the water boards to grant politically connected timber interests a de facto right to pollute," said DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings. "There is no right to pollute. Polluting is a regulated privilege, allowable only after the public's right to clean water and a healthy environment is protected."

In reviewing the 1980s logging exemptions, both regional water boards found they were not sufficient to protect water quality and should not be renewed. However, both boards adopted new waivers early in 2003, which rely on the same forestry regulations that the boards had previously found inadequate. In adopting the waivers, both water boards claimed that their exemptions had no potential to create adverse impacts to the environment.

"Logging the Sierra has a profound impact on water quality in California," said Paul Mason of the Sierra Club California. "This lawsuit attempts to make sure that the water boards use their full regulatory authority to protect our priceless rivers and streams."


Click here to view a copy of the petition filed.

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Contacts

Mike Lozeau, Earthjustice (650) 725-4217 (415) 596-5318 cell

Cynthia Elkins, EPIC (707) 923-2931

Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper (209) 464-5090 (209) 505-9324 cell

Paul Mason, Sierra Club (916) 557-1100 x120

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.