Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special To The Chronicle 2017
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 to step it up by sending a message that in California, when it comes to clean water, the polluter pays.
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).
Photo: San Francisco Baykeeper
San Francisco Bay suffers from discharges of heavy metals, oil, grease and chemicals into its watershed. Contaminants from a metal recycling facility along the Oakland Estuary also blow into the bay waters.
San Francisco Bay suffers from discharges of heavy metals, oil,…
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.
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.
At least under the Trump administration, California is going to have to go it alone. We are known internationally as a state that cares deeply about environmental protection, so you’d think we’d have this covered. California is suing the Trump administration to prevent rollbacks to vehicle emission standards. Frustratingly, this same vigor has not been applied to taking action against those polluting California’s beaches, bays and rivers.
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 holding polluters accountable. 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.
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.
Photo: Russian Riverkeeper
Russian River area vineyard agricultural runoff is harming aquatic life even when in compliance with state water quality standards.
Russian River area vineyard agricultural runoff is harming aquatic…
The same state agencies that don’t seem willing to issue penalties for polluted industrial runoff do 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 able or willing 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. Restoring the health of our state’s waterways will require using every tool. 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.