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Environmental Groups Sue to Block Exemptions for Agricultural Water Pollution

Lawsuit filed today to protect the health of California's citizens and waterways
January 9, 2003
Sacramento, CA —

Today, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit to challenge a controversial decision made last month by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board that exempted agricultural discharges from meeting statewide water quality objectives. In its decision, the Board failed to comply with its duties under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") because it did not determine the effects that the conditional waiver for agricultural discharges would have on the environment, claim the groups. DeltaKeeper, CalPIRG, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance filed the lawsuit today in California Superior Court of Sacramento County.

"CEQA is our most fundamental environmental law because it provides decision makers with the crucial information necessary for intelligent decisions. The Regional Board's failure to comply with the most basic mandates of CEQA led it to issue a confused and nonprotective waiver exempting farmers from water quality laws that apply to businesses and cities throughout the state," explained DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings. "We're asking the court to vacate the waiver and require the Board to undertake an environmental impact analysis."

On December 5, 2002, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in the Central Valley and voted to allow farm runoff and discharges of contaminated irrigation water to continue to remain exempt from regulation under the state's clean water law. The coalition believes caved under pressure from agricultural interests. As a result, agribusinesses in the Central Valley can keep discharging pesticides, fertilizers, sediment and other pollutants into state waterways for another two years. In approving the exemption, the Regional Board also determined that its action was exempt from CEQA's requirement to prepare a full analysis of environmental impacts and alternatives – a determination that is challenged by the lawsuit filed today.

"How can exempting pollution from 25,000 operations covering 7 million acres of the Central Valley not have an adverse impact on the environment?" asks Mike Lozeau of Earthjustice, the environmental law firm representing the groups.

"Agricultural discharges, such as toxic pesticides, are polluting over 500 miles of California waters already. This exemption will not reduce that pollution – it will allow increased pollution of these watersheds," said Teri Olle of CalPIRG. "A waiver allowing the status quo to be maintained or degraded is clearly a significant impact on the environment."

"The Water Board has argued that exempting the Valley's largest source of industrial pollution water quality laws will not cause harm to the environment," said Jonathan Kaplan of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We think a judge will disagree."

The Regional Board's decision to exempt agricultural discharges came just three weeks prior to the legislatively-mandated termination of an existing waiver issued by the Board to agriculture in 1982. The Board made the decision following a packed public hearing on the issue of extending waivers for farm runoff in the Central Valley from water quality regulations. Agricultural dischargers demanded that the Board renew the waiver prior to termination of the old waiver. Although thousands of concerned citizens voiced their opposition to the proposed waiver, the Board voted to waive water quality requirements for agricultural runoff for another two years without any evidence showing that the waiver would decrease pollution in California waters.

"The Regional Board appears to have decided that it did not have time to comply with CEQA because of agriculturist's demand that a renewed waiver be issued before the end of the year," said Jennings. "The Board failed to do its homework and, under pressure from agribusiness, hastily made an uninformed decision that endangers the health of California citizens, and fish in our waterways."

The environmental organizations' lawsuit charges that the Regional Board violated CEQA by failing to prepare a full Environmental Impact Report analyzing the potential impacts of the agricultural waiver.

"The Board's wishful conclusion that exempting a massive number of highly polluted discharges from the state's water quality laws does not harm the environment is not supported by any of the evidence submitted to the Board," explained Mike Lozeau. "The Regional Board cannot with a straight face think that this waiver is not going to adversely harm the environment."

"The Central Valley Water Board has had more than 3 years to comply with CEQA and collect the information they needed before making such a huge decision," Jennings continued. "The Board's procrastination cannot replace compliance with this fundamental law."

For more background visit: www.cleanfarmscleanwater.org

Contacts

Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper 209-464-5090

Mike Lozeau, Earthjustice, 415-596-5318

Teri Olle, CalPIRG, 415-206-9338 ext. 303

Jonathan Kaplan, NRDC, 415-777-0220