Lawsuit Seeks to End Water Pollution Exemption for CA Logging Operations

Sierra-Delta Watershed and Urban Drinking Water Impaired by Waiver


Greg Loarie, Earthjustice (510) 550 – 6725


Cynthia Elkins, EPIC (707) 923 – 2931


Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper (209) 464-5090


Warren Alford, Sierra Club (916) 557-1100 x 111

A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today in California Superior Court to reverse a decision by the Central Valley Regional Water Board to grant the logging industry a broad exemption under 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 charges the Central Valley Regional Water Board with violations of the California Environmental Quality Act for issuing the exemption and cites water quality concerns relating to the increased rates of clearcutting and herbicide spraying throughout the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades.

“The protection of these rivers and streams is of utmost importance to millions of Californians, especially those who drink water from these sources. Unfortunately, the Water Board seems more interested in protecting logging companies rather than its mandate to protect and restore water quality,” said Cynthia Elkins of EPIC.

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. The water district covers the Sierra Nevada and Cascades and the Valley from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. This region already experiences the majority of logging-related water pollution in the state. 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.

“Healthy forests act like sponges, holding and filtering California’s water,” said Warren Alford of the Sierra Club. “Waiving water quality protection for logging operations over an entire region for the sake of convenience and the benefit of polluters is a disaster for the public.”

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 Water Board has not fully scrutinized discharges from a logging operation since it adopted a similar exemption in 1982. 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 Central Valley Water Quality Board has raised duty-shirking to an art form: see no loggers, hear no loggers, regulate no loggers,” said Bill Jennings of DeltaKeeper. “If the regional board was as aggressive in protecting our waterways as they are in protecting polluters, we could again safely fish in and drink from our rivers.”

In reviewing the 1982 logging exemption, the Central Valley Regional Water Board found it was not sufficient to protect water quality and should not be renewed. However, it adopted a new waiver on January 30, 2003, which relies on the same forestry regulations that it had previously found inadequate. In adopting the waiver, the Central Valley Water Board claimed that this exemption would cause no potential to create adverse impacts to the environment.

“Exempting logging operations from all water pollution permits obviously has effects on the environment,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney for Earthjustice who is representing conservationists. “We believe this abdication of responsibility by the water board is not legal and will not stand up in court.”

Additional Resources

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.