California’s water pollution laws languishing without enforcement

From the Bay Area to the Oregon border, we have 3 full time inspectors due to budget cuts. With a budget surplus, it’s time to hire more staff.

” In 2016, only 1 percent of the illegal industrial and construction storm water pollution cases brought to the state water board resulted in penalties. Six of the nine regional water boards did not issue a single fine in 2016. In 2017, just 2 percent of industrial and construction storm water pollution cases brought to the state water board resulted in penalties.”

California’s water pollution laws languishing without enforcement

May 24, 2018 Updated: May 25, 2018 9:36am

There is nothing more Californian than our ability to swim, surf and fish in clean water. And yet, we have fallen behind Kentucky and Texas when it comes to clean water enforcement. With industry advocates in the federal driver’s seat, we need state leaders in California to hold polluters accountable for harming our precious water resources.

Two years ago, I hiked the length of California and waded the Kern, Feather and San Joaquin rivers. At their beginnings, these waters are crystal clear, cold, flowing strong and clean. More than 40 years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect these national treasures from pollution.

When California’s rivers leave the mountain snowmelt behind, they embark on a difficult journey. Many are diverted, drained and pumped dry before they reach the Pacific Ocean. Those that keep flowing are often polluted with heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria, plastic bottles and runoff from industrial operations. In fact, the number of California rivers that failed to meet basic water quality standards for swimming, fishing and drinking shot up 170 percent from 2006 to 2010, (the last time our state undertook this legally required biannual task).

Like rules designed to prevent drunk driving, environmental laws are only as good as their enforcement. If police in some areas decided that being over the .08 percent blood alcohol level was not a big deal and didn’t issue penalties, we would see an increase in traffic deaths and the officers involved could lose their jobs. Unfortunately, this same scenario is playing out when it comes to actions against those polluting California’s waterways.

Russian River area vineyard agricultural runoff is harming aquatic life even when in compliance with state water quality standards. Photo: Russian Riverkeeper

Russian River area vineyard agricultural runoff is harming aquatic life even when in compliance with state water quality standards.

Photo: Russian Riverkeeper 

Russian River area vineyard agricultural runoff is harming aquatic life even when in compliance with state water quality standards.

It used to be that the federal government was a cop on the beat enforcing the Clean Water Act. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency being subjected to a hostile takeover from polluting industries, the number of environmental enforcement cases and the amount of penalties levied has been cut in half.

The State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards are charged with protecting our increasingly scarce and precious water resources. These agencies helped us survive a devastating drought, but are falling short when it comes to levying fines against polluters. In 2016, only 1 percent of the illegal industrial and construction storm water pollution cases brought to the state water board resulted in penalties. Six of the nine regional water boards did not issue a single fine in 2016. In 2017, just 2 percent of industrial and construction storm water pollution cases brought to the state water board resulted in penalties.

The same state agencies that don’t seem willing to issue penalties for polluted industrial runoff have a good track record when it comes to issuing fines for sewage pollution, so it can be done. Let’s start enforcing clean water laws by taking these three steps:

1 Have the state set clear enforcement goals for all regional water boards that describe the types of pollution to be targeted, the areas of the state that need the most attention, and how many cases each region shall bring, with specific goals for penalties collected;

2 Require all state and regional water permits and policies go through a review to make sure the language is clear enough to actually be enforced; and

3 If the individual regional water boards aren’t willing or able to enforce pollution laws, then the state should take back the program and run the water enforcement work from Sacramento, where there is less room for interference from polluting industries.

For too long, we have been campaigning for clean water with one hand tied behind our back. By using the state’s authority to fine serious polluters, we will be giving our rivers, lakes and coast a fighting chance.

Jared Blumenfeld is a member of the Clean Water Accountability Project Blue Ribbon Panel, host of Podship Earth, and the former administrator of U.S. EPA Region 9. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters. ..

This means that of the thousands of refineries, trash dumps, auto dismantlers and cement factories from San Jose to the Oregon border, not a single facility was fined by the state for storm water pollution. In California, the polluter doesn’t pay. Even repeat offenders and those who are responsible for “serious” violations face no economic consequences. This puts the majority of companies — which are complying with the Clean Water Act — at a significant competitive disadvantage.

 

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