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Protecting California's Clean Water

by LINDA SHEEHAN -The Ocean Conservancy Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2003 at 8:29 AM
415- 979-0900 116 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA. 94105

According to a 2000 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency two thirds of California lakes tested so polluted they cannot support aquatic life.

Guarding Liquid Gold: Protecting California’s Clean Water

Linda Sheehan, Director, Pacific Regional Office

The Ocean Conservancy

116 New Montgomery Street, Suite 810

San Francisco, CA 94105

Californians are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful and bountiful places in the world. Residents enjoy the numerous benefits of a moderate climate, fertile soil and diverse natural resources. However, many of the same fields, forests and farms that yield sustenance, resources and scenic vistas are also contaminating the groundwater and polluting the rivers and streams of our state.

According to a 2000 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, almost two-thirds of California lakes tested are so polluted they cannot fully support aquatic life, and over half of our lakes should not be swum in. The top culprit? Not factories or sewage treatment plants, but agricultural pollution. Polluted wastewater running off of agricultural and timber operations is also the leading reason that 85% of tested California rivers and streams are similarly contaminated. The main pollutants responsible for these unhealthy waters include pathogens, sediment, and nutrients – pollutants typically discharged from agriculture and logging.

Other signs of the ongoing and increasing impacts of polluted runoff abound:

Runoff from farms contaminates the drinking water supplies of millions of Californians. Agricultural pesticides, pathogens, nitrates and salts have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 16.5 million people in 46 California counties. The Department of Pesticide Regulation found pesticides in 96% of the 133 locations it tested in the Central Valley; in over half of these locations, pesticides levels exceeded aquatic life and drinking water standards.

Agricultural runoff pollution is so pervasive in the Central Valley that it has made over 500 miles of rivers and streams unsafe for many uses. This is not a problem limited to the Central Valley however: agricultural runoff poisons at least half, and likely more, of the contaminated waters along California’s spectacular Central Coast.

A study of “typical well-run dairies” with only 400-900 milk cows found that the groundwater beneath these smaller dairies contained toxic nitrates at five times the maximum safe drinking water level, and salts at more than twice the maximum level.

Polluted runoff from logging has made more than 85% of North Coast rivers and streams are unfit for aquatic life and other uses. The National Marine Fisheries Service identified logging as the primary reason that the populations of endangered Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout have crashed so dramatically in California in recent years.

The state has essentially ignored pollution from timber and agricultural operations for decades, even though existing California water quality laws cover these wastewater discharges. As a result, polluted runoff is now the biggest source of pollution of the state’s dwindling clean water supply. In light of the overwhelming evidence of widespread contamination caused by polluted runoff, California can no longer afford to look the other way. Something must be done.

But developing programs to control pollution by timber and agricultural dischargers – who are unused to such controls – can be a challenge. These programs must address large numbers of individual dischargers, with a dearth of money or information available to do so comprehensively. As a result, the agencies that are responsible for protecting our water quality have been struggling in their search for a solution.

SB 923 (Sher), currently pending before the Legislature, would guide this process by setting up the essential elements of a successful program to control polluted runoff. First, the bill provides a clear standard for water quality agencies by providing that – above all else – programs to control pollution must be “in the public interest.” Second, the bill requires a minimum level of monitoring of all wastewater discharges, which would in turn provide important information about the sources and characteristics of pollution. Finally, the bill would place the costs of pollution on those who create those costs, by requiring those who use California’s waters as dumping grounds for their wastewater to pay for needed state oversight.

Clean water is an increasingly scarce and valuable commodity in California. If we are to guard our precious supplies of clean water, we must tackle polluted runoff, the principal obstacle to attaining and maintaining high water quality throughout the state. The public has been shouldering the burdens of dirty water from agricultural and logging runoff for too long. To prevent our supply of clean water from slowing to a trickle, the public, as the owners of California’s water, must hold all dischargers responsible for keeping that supply clean.

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