Groups Challenge Agricultural Pollution Waivers in California
A coalition of environmental groups has filed the first challenge to a controversial decision made last month by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board waiving reporting and permitting requirements for agricultural pollution discharges to the waters of the Central Valley. DeltaKeeper, CalPIRG, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy and California Sport-fishing Protection Alliance filed an appeal of the decision with the Sacramento-based State Water Resources Control Board, the agency that oversees water quality for California.
"The Regional Board's rushed decision was motivated by a desire to protect agricultural dischargers rather than protect California's water quality," explained DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings. "We are looking to the State Board to put the Regional Board's priorities back on the right track and create a meaningful and effective pollution control program for the Central Valley agricultural industry."
On December 5, 2002, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board caved into pressure from big agricultural business in the Central Valley and decided to allow agricultural irrigation waters and runoff to continue to pollute California's waterways essentially free from agency oversight. An existing waiver, which the Board issued in 1982, was scheduled to terminate on January 1, 2003. The Regional Board rushed to issue a new waiver in order to relieve the agricultural industry from having to comply with water quality requirements that already apply to thousands of other business, small and large, throughout California.
The Regional 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. Although thousands of concerned citizens had voiced their opposition to the proposed waiver, Regional Board members voted to waive water quality requirements for agricultural runoff for another two years.
"The Central Valley Water Board did not carefully consider all of the scientific evidence establishing the devastating impacts of agricultural discharges on the waters and wildlife of the Central Valley," said Jennings. "The Board failed to do its homework and, under pressure from big agribusiness, hastily made a decision that endangers the health of California citizens, and fish in our waterways."
The environmental organizations' appeal charges that the Regional Board's decision is too vague and illegally waives requirements for discharges that are resulting in violations of water quality standards for fishing and drinking. "The waiver goes too far, basically asking the dischargers to come up with their own programs," explained Mike Lozeau of Earthjustice, the environmental law firm representing the groups. "The Regional Board cannot with a straight face think that more voluntary efforts by the agricultural industry -- the results of which since 1982 are vast stretches of polluted waters in the Valley -- suddenly will prove effective."
The appeal asks the State Board to conduct its own evidentiary hearing and design an appropriate regulatory program for agricultural pollution discharges to Central Valley waters. In addition, the groups submitted an extensive review by the Natural Resources Defense Council showing that agricultural pollutants, such as pesticides, fertilizers and sediment can be reduced or eliminated from farm runoff. The review, which considered nearly 70 studies, mostly conducted in the Central Valley, shows that many high-risk practices such as winter-season orchard insecticide sprays, herbicide use and excessive fertilizer applications can be replaced with low impact alternatives. For example, highly toxic orchard sprays can be reduced or eliminated by promoting beneficial insects, using biological signals to disrupt pest mating cycles and carefully monitoring pests in the field to apply pesticides only as necessary. Similarly, by taking into account existing plant nutrients in soils and irrigation water, and through careful plant monitoring, growers can reduce unnecessary fertilizer applications, saving money and protecting water quality.
"Innovative California growers have already proven that alternative practices work," said Jonathan Kaplan of the NRDC. "We'd like to see the Water Boards level the playing field by asking all growers to do their share."
The groups also publicized a report commissioned by the Regional Board itself that evaluated agricultural management practices which the Board's rushed decision did not take into account. Additionally, the groups claim that one of the Board members who voted in favor of the waiver -- Beverly Alves -- appears to own an interest in an agricultural operation that would be a beneficiary of the new waiver. "According to the Regional Board's web site, Ms. Alves is a co-owner of an irrigated agricultural operation," said Jennings. "The Board has not verified that they performed a conflict-of-interest check despite the obvious likelihood that Ms. Alves was voting on waiving her own permitting requirements."
"The Central Valley Water Board has known since 1999 that the waivers would expire this month," Jennings continued, "And yet they failed to come up with a workable plan to replace these outdated waivers. The Board wasted an historic opportunity to clean up agricultural pollution."
Copies of the petitions are available online at:
For more background visit: www.cleanfarmscleanwater.org
Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper 209-464-5090
Mike Lozeau, Earthjustice 650-725-4217
Jonathan Kaplan, NRDC 415-777-0220