California is pledging to defend its actions to tackle climate change and fund clean energy. But it should also be positioning itself as a leader on clean water.
Our new president said he was “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies” such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the United States rule. He is already making good on that promise by removing all mentions of climate change from his new White House website. And Scott Pruitt, his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has repeatedly protected industry from environmental policies.
California’s leaders have pledged to defend California values by holding our ground on climate change, clean energy and air-quality programs fundamental to our health and economy. But there has been considerably less focus on water, despite the enormous threats coming from Washington, D.C., and even within the state. Just as we lead the nation on climate action and renewable energy, we must lead on water.
California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act and other state laws provide a robust set of tools to achieve clean water. Brian Gray from the Public Policy Institute of California recently laid out a roadmap for a state of water independence, explaining that our strong state laws can provide a firewall against federal policy. But in order to insulate our communities, rivers, coast and economy from federal policies that put profits above public good, we must use state authority effectively.
We need our State Water Resources Control Board and its nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards to dramatically step up efforts to enforce the laws designed to ensure that every Californian has access to safe, clean waters that are swimmable, fishable and drinkable. Records show that these boards currently conduct few site inspections or audits to check whether rules are being followed to protect flow levels in our rivers and streams and to ensure safe water quality.
Most enforcement actions are related to administrative violations – such as failing to submit paperwork on time – while pollution continues to flow into and through our waters, making them unsuitable for swimming or fishing. Violators typically get off with just a warning, making the stakes for following the rules too low to promote compliance. The State Water Board’s own Annual Performance Report recognizes that of the 3,271 stormwater violations identified in 2013–14, 99 percent were handled with informal warnings. And when water boards do impose a fine, these are so small that polluters generally pay the fine rather than invest capital to address their pollution. This has created a de facto “pay to pollute” system that protects polluters, rather than a system that protects communities from water pollution. Similarly, for many of California’s streams and rivers, the water boards have failed to quantify and enforce flow levels that protect endangered species and the public’s right to swim and fish.
This long-lasting neglect has dire consequences for our environment and communities. According to EPA information from 2012, more than 90 percent of rivers and streams assessed by the state are too polluted for drinking, fishing or swimming. The economic and public health cost of this widespread water pollution is staggering. California communities are spending $428 million each year to clean up trash and marine debris. A 2006 study concluded that contamination from polluted runoff at Southern California beaches sickens approximately 1 million swimmers every year, resulting in public health costs of $21 million to $51 million annually.
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Sara Aminzadeh is an attorney and advocate working on climate, water and oceans issues in California. Sara is the executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance, which unites 13 Waterkeeper organizations to fight for swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters for California communities and ecosystems.