Lawsuit Challenges California's Decision to Allow Farm Pollution

Environmental and fishing groups call failure to regulate pesticide runoff a disgrace


Michael Lozeau, Earthjustice, Cell: 415-596-5318


Bill Jennings, Deltakeeper, 209-464-5090


Linda Sheehan, TOC, Cell: 510-219-7730


David Beckman, NRDC, 323-934-6900

Today, environmental and fishing groups took the public’s longstanding battle against farm pollution to court. The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, challenges the Central Valley Regional Water Board’s decision to exempt more than 25,000 growers from clean water laws and also includes claims against the State Water Board for upholding the decision. The lawsuit asserts that the agencies violated California’s core water quality laws and the California Environmental Quality Act, which require the agencies to issue permits for substantial discharges of pollution and to assess the environmental impacts caused by agricultural runoff. The groups ask the Court to vacate the exemption and to order the agencies to regulate the agricultural industry as required by law.

“There is hardly a Central Valley river or stretch of the Delta that is not degraded by agricultural pollution,” said Earthjustice’s Mike Lozeau, an attorney for the groups. “The State’s clean water act is supposed to protect and clean our waters, not protect and shield agribusiness from having to clean up their massive pollution.”

The environmental and fishing groups have presented evidence demonstrating that the controversial permit exemption allows runoff containing pesticides, nitrates, and heavy metals from over seven million acres of farmland to contaminate hundreds of miles of streams and rivers, natural habitat, and the drinking water of millions of Californians.

“The waiver exempts agriculture from regulations applicable to everyone else. It doesn’t require agribusiness to reduce a single pound of pollution, implement a single pollution prevention measure or meet a single water quality standard,” said Deltakeeper Bill Jennings of Waterkeepers Northern California. “The Water Boards seem to be trying to outrun the Bush administration in fleeing from the enforcement of environmental laws.”

The State Water Board upheld the Central Valley’s decision in January of this year. The lawsuit alleges that both the Central Valley Board and State Water Board’s decisions essentially provide a special-interest exemption from state permit requirements for one select group of polluters. Among other things, the decisions deliberately fail to generate adequate funding for enforcing the program; fail to reduce pollution by refusing to put in place basic controls, timelines, or performance standards; and continue to hide the ball with individual discharger identity and accountability. In issuing and upholding the decision to exempt, neither agency responded to the volumes of scientific documents and expert testimonies in evidence, which show that the adopted monitoring program is inadequate and will fail to protect water quality.

“The decision sets a statewide precedent of ignoring Californians’ need and overwhelming support for clean water,” said Linda Sheehan, Director of The Ocean Conservancy’s Pacific Office. “Californians rightfully expect clean beaches, fishable rivers and safe drinking water. By contrast, the state’s decision ignores California’s growing water crisis and fritters away the limited supply we have left.”

Agricultural runoff is one of the largest sources of water pollution in California; as such it is depleting California’s invaluable and rapidly-dwindling supply of clean water and harming human health as well as fish and wildlife habitat.

“Innovative growers up and down the state have already demonstrated economically viable, environmentally friendly farming practices; it’s time for the rest of the industry to step up,” said David Beckman, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The coalition filing the lawsuit includes Deltakeeper (a project of Waterkeepers Northern California), Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Environment California, and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

For more background on this subject visit:

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.