The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board came under criticism by local environmental groups today after releasing a long-awaited proposal to regulate agricultural discharges to waterways in the Central Valley. The groups denounced the proposal arguing it would provide little assurance of protecting fisheries and drinking water supplies from pesticides, fertilizers, selenium, sediment and other agricultural pollutants.
"Despite months of negotiations, the Water Board's proposal fails to adequately address the serious pollution problem caused by agriculture throughout the Central Valley," said local activist Bill Jennings, director of Stockton-based DeltaKeeper, "Instead of a program that makes the agricultural community accountable for their pollution of the Central Valley's waters, the Board repeats past mistakes, relying on the fox to guard the hen house."
Agricultural runoff is the largest source of pollution for many of the Central Valley's waterways yet California farmers have been exempted from state and federal water quality permitting laws for decades. Congress, under pressure from the agricultural community, exempted farm runoff from the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970's. The Central Valley Regional Board followed suit in 1982 by exempting agricultural discharges from the reporting and permitting requirements of California's own clean water act, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. That exemption, which has been challenged by public interest groups, was based on unsupported assumptions that toxic discharges from agriculture do not pose a threat to the environment, and that growers would self-regulate.
In fact, however, lack of discharge regulation has permitted widespread water pollution to continue unabated. In 1998, the State Water Resources Control Board and the US EPA declared that over 500 miles of rivers and creeks and over 480,000 acres of the Delta in the Central Valley Region of California are impaired by agricultural pesticides and other pollutants. Agricultural pollution has contaminated hundreds of drinking water wells in the Central Valley and degrades drinking water supplies for millions of Californians in the Central Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and Southern California, many of whom get their water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.
A 2000 analysis by the California Public Interest Research Group of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's pesticide monitoring data revealed pesticide detections in 96% of the 133 locations tested, most of which were in the Central Valley. Over half of the measured pesticides exceeded levels safe for aquatic life and drinking water consumption.
In 1999, the state legislature passed a law that terminates the Regional Board's agricultural exemption on January 1, 2003. Earlier this year, the Farm Bureau sponsored legislation that would have preserved the exemptions for an additional four years, but this legislation was withdrawn in June in the face of strong opposition from environmental and labor groups. With the sunset of the current exemptions looming, opponents of new discharge controls have been lobbying Regional Board staff for more delay and weaker measures.
Late last week, the Regional Board proposed to replace the existing regulatory exemptions with another "conditional waiver" from state clean water act permitting requirements. Under the proposed regulatory system, growers would remain exempted from the state clean water act's permitting requirements if they implement unspecified pollution prevention and monitoring efforts. The proposal fails to include any benchmarks for improvement or even an explicit requirement to reduce pollution or protect water quality.
"It's absolutely essential that the agricultural industry comply with the same standards of protecting the public's waters as other businesses in California," said Jennings.
The Regional Board will accept written comments on the regulatory proposal until November 21st. The Board consider approving the proposed rule on December 4th, 5th, or 6th. The proposal can be found at www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb5/