Public Demands Cal. State Water Board Eliminate Illegal Pollution Exemptions

Public-interest groups appeal decision to allow farm pollution to contaminate state waters


Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper, 209-464-5090


Michael Lozeau, Earthjustice, 650-725-4217


Linda Sheehan, The Ocean Conservancy, 415-979-0900

Seven public-interest organizations representing hundreds of thousands of Californians filed an appeal to the State Water Resources Control Board to overturn a decision last month to essentially ignore farm runoff, a major source of water pollution in the Central Valley. Under state law, ignoring pollution in this way is only legal if it will not harm the public or degrade water quality. However, the appeal documents provide overwhelming evidence that toxic pollution from farms is harming the public and degrading waters. In fact, the groups point to over 50 scientific studies and the opinions of six independent scientists to demonstrate that the inadequate requirements are likely to exacerbate water quality problems.

“Exemptions should be reserved for truly de minimis, inconsequential pollution, not the largest source of pollution causing widespread contamination throughout the waters of the Central Valley,” said Earthjustice’s Mike Lozeau, attorney for the environmental groups. “The Regional Board’s decision is based on wishful thinking and politics rather than an objective review of the evidence.”

On July 11, 2003 the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board ignored the pleas of over 200 public heath, environmental, fishing, and other organizations representing millions of Californians asking for stronger regulation of farm runoff, which pollutes hundreds of miles of California waterways every year. Against the advice of staff and scientific experts, the Regional Water Board decided to adopt yet another exemption to take the place of twenty-year old exemptions that expired in January.

“We’ll never reverse the rising tide of pollution if agricultural polluters are not required to abide by reasonable controls long applicable to virtually every other segment of society,” said DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings. “Contrary to the Regional Board’s belief, pollution control requirements cannot be based upon the willingness of farmers to comply with the law.”

The impaired Central Valley waters are the primary source of drinking water for over 20 million Californians across the state. The state and U.S. EPA, however, have declared that many of these waters are unsafe for uses such as drinking, swimming, and/or fishing. Despite this evidence, the Regional Water Board stated that the exemption is “not against the public interest” because, among other faulty reasons, “it provides reasonable flexibility for the Dischargers … .”

“The Board’s job is to consider the interests of the millions Californians who are entitled to clean water, and not focus on those who pollute those waters,” said Linda Sheehan of The Ocean Conservancy. “The State Board’s review will set the stage for responsible pollution controls around the state, including along the state’s world-renowned Central Coast, which is also heavily contaminated by farm runoff.”

The groups have asked the State Water Board to: consider the real harm to the public as required by law, vacate the July 11th exemption, and issue general permits for farmers that are similar to the permits currently issued to almost every other industry, large and small, discharging pollutants into California waters.

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