Today, a coalition of environmental and sport-fishing organizations asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate alleged violations of the California Water Code’s conflict of interest provisions and the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act by members of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The appeal expands a similar request filed by the State Water Resources Control Board last month. The groups also requested that the State Water Resources Control Board immediately take over from the Regional Water Board the task of developing controls on the discharge of agricultural pollutants into the state’s waters.
The requests follow a complaint made by DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings to the Regional Water Board the day after a hotly contested April 24th hearing on proposed special exemptions for agricultural discharges. In response to the allegations of misconduct, the Regional Water Board voted only to begin an in-house investigation of the matter. The State Water Board, however, on April 29, 2003, referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation and possible prosecution.
“I’ve never seen such blatant and outrageous conflict-of-interest, motion swapping, and violations of due process in more than 18 years of appearing before the Regional Board,” said Mr. Jennings. “We’re asking the State Water Board to take over issuing the required regulations for agricultural pollution because we’ve simply lost faith that the Regional Board can address the matter publicly, impartially, and in accordance with the law.”
First-ever regulations to protect water quality from agricultural pollution are at stake
At stake in the controversy is the development of first-ever controls to limit the discharges of pesticides, fertilizers, sediment, toxins, and other agricultural pollutants to the Central Valley’s rivers and streams. At Regional Board hearings in December and April, agri-business lobby groups advocated strenuously for a voluntary program with little accountability to the public and no funding.
Regional Water Board’s credibility impaired
The environmental and sport-fishing groups alleged that key votes taken by the Board in April and December were influenced by at least one Regional Board member with a financial interest in the outcome. Board Member Beverly Alves’ 1,200 acre farm would ostensibly be subject to the new regulations. In addition, recently filed financial disclosure documents reveal income to Alves from multiple agricultural businesses and associations. Additionally, Alves’ husband is president of a local irrigation district and a member of the Board of Directors for the Northern California Water Association, a coalition of water agencies that has actively lobbied for lax discharge controls.
In addition, the environmental and sport-fishing coalition asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate charges that at least two Board Members have engaged in unlawful tactics to circumvent the public debate on setting new agricultural pollution controls. Ms. Alves was in fact seen in a private, back room meeting with top agri-business lobbyists during the April 24th hearing when pollution controls were being considered. During the hearing, she suggested that they “indefinitely postpone” the matter, using language that matched a draft “motion” circulated by agri-business lobbyists the day before the hearing. Her comments prompted the Chair to say, “…how did you know that? Is that cause we were circulating motions at the front table, Beverly?” In their request to the Attorney General for an investigation of the matter, the environmental and sport-fishing coalition noted that pre-hearing agreements by Regional Board members to vote a certain way on public meeting agenda items violate state law. Additionally, knowingly participating in a matter where a Board Member has a conflict of interest is grounds for the member’s dismissal.
The coalition also denounced Board Member Al Brizard, a recently retired farmer, for his attempt to privately pressure the Board’s Executive Director to reassign staff members who authored the proposed regulations, which significantly improved upon the December proposal, and replace them with individuals who had the “trust” of agriculture.
“The Regional Board is imploding under the political weight of this issue,” said Jonathan Kaplan of NRDC. “It’s time for the State Board to step in and restore some integrity to the process.”
Public’s right to participate trampled
The Regional Water Board met on April 24th only to consider testimony on a staff proposal to revise the weak agricultural pollution controls it had adopted in December. However, even though the public comment period was not scheduled to conclude until May 23rd, and even though the hearing notice explicitly stated that the Board would not take formal action on the proposed new controls, the Board, in a divisive 4 to 3 vote, directed staff to eliminate fees and water down the proposal to make it more acceptable to agricultural interests.
“Unfortunately it appears that a number of Regional Board members are so focused on pleasing their friends or, in one Board member’s case, saving herself some money, that they’ve forgotten their primary responsibility is to protect the quality of California’s waters,” said Michael Lozeau of Earthjustice. “Given the massive pollution from agriculture now afflicting almost all of the Central Valley’s waters, we think it’s high time the State Board stepped in and provided a more open public process.
Agriculture is the leading but least regulated source of pollution
Agricultural runoff is the largest source of pollution for many of the Central Valley’s waterways, yet Central Valley growers have enjoyed a unique exemption from state and federal clean water laws for over twenty years. Now, both state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have determined that agricultural pollution causes or contributes to the pollution of virtually every significant waterway in the Central Valley, and indeed many waterways around the state.
“The rest of the state was looking to the Central Valley Regional Water Board for leadership on how to control agricultural pollution,” said Linda Sheehan with The Ocean Conservancy. “This fiasco unfortunately shows that the state is floundering when it comes to protecting the public’s limited supply of clean water.”
Background: Agriculture is the leading but least regulated source of pollution
- Though the state’s clean water law, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, does address agricultural pollution, in 1982, the Central Valley Regional Board “conditionally waived” the law’s reporting and permitting requirements for agricultural pollution, essentially ignoring it for decades.
- Since then, both state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have determined that agricultural pollution causes or contributes to the pollution of virtually every significant waterway in the Central Valley and indeed many waterways around the state.
- According to the U.S. EPA’s 2002 list of impaired waterbodies, over 635 miles of rivers and streams in the Central Valley, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta, are so polluted by agricultural pesticides that they are unsafe for uses such as fishing, swimming, and drinking.
- Farm runoff that reaches the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers contaminates drinking water supplies for millions of Californians in the Central Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California.
- Pesticides, pathogens, nitrates and salts have been detected in drinking water sources for at least 46 California counties.
- The Department of Pesticide Regulation detected pesticides in 96% of Central Valley locations tested, and over half of these detections exceeded unsafe levels for aquatic life and drinking water consumption.
- The Regional Water Board scheduled the April 24th hearing in response to a December action in which the Regional Water Board attempted once again to effectively ignore agricultural pollution by vaguely asking dischargers only to develop plans for water quality monitoring and pollution prevention.
- For the December hearing, over 4,000 individuals and the editorials of the Valley’s four largest newspapers demanded an end to agricultural waivers.
- In response to the public outcry, the Regional Board changed direction, asking agency staff to write a new, more detailed proposal for the April meeting.
- While Environmental and sport-fishing groups say the April proposal as a significant improvement over the December proposal, it still failed to provide adequate protections for waterways, and the Board’s improper April vote asked staff to eliminate fees entirely and to water down improved monitoring requirements.
- Environmental and sport-fishing groups have criticized both December and April policies for the failure to impose timelines and performance standards, lack of accountability to the public, lax monitoring requirements, and absence of adequate fees to fund the program’s costs.