Major Backsliding in Water Quality as California Water Board Acknowledges It Has Less Than a Third of Staff Necessary to Meet Legal Mandates
The Executive Officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) has acknowledged that the Board is so understaffed that it can’t meet its core regulatory mission of protecting the state’s water quality.
This stunning admission came during Executive Officer Pamela Creedon’s State of the Central Valley Region presentation at the 2 August 2007 meeting of the Board. The Central Valley Region covers nearly 40% of the State’s land area, provides drinking water to two-thirds of the state’s population and includes reservoirs storing nearly 30 million acre feet of water. According to state reports, virtually all of the waterways within the Region are impaired by an astonishing array of pesticides, metals, salts, pathogens, fertilizers and industrial chemicals.
Ms. Creedon admitted that, based upon a needs assessment, the Board has only: a) 12% of the staff necessary to regulate storm water discharges, b) 16% of those required to regulate dairies, c) 37% necessary to control municipal wastewater discharges, d) 40% of those needed to regulate landfills, e) 26% of those necessary to control discharges of waste to land and f) only 22% of the staff crucial to enforcing conditions of the controversial agricultural waivers. Other Board units are similarly understaffed. For example, the enforcement unit is assigned only 3.5 people, the surface water monitoring and assessment unit has only 2, underground tanks has only 17 of 41 needed, and the Basin Planning unit has only 11 of the 38 necessary to update the Basin Plans that are fundamental to all Board actions. An overview of the staffing shortages is attached at the end of this press release.
The water boards have been systematically deprived of staff necessary to protect water quality and it is simply disingenuous for the administration to suggest that our rivers and streams are being protected given these massive shortfalls. Since Governor Schwarzenegger’s election, we’ve witnessed an appalling u-turn in water quality protection: weakened or nonexistent permits, delayed cleanups and lagging enforcement. Consequently, pollutant loads are rising, waterways are increasingly degraded and fisheries are collapsing. The result is a threat to public health and an embezzlement of our legacy of fish and wildlife.
Illustrative of the Board’s retreat from water quality protection is the backsliding in the more than 200 municipal waste discharge permits, issued pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act. First, federal funds were returned to USEPA so that the majority of permit writing could be out-sourced to Tetra Tech (the Regional Board Executive Director’s former employer). Tetra Tech’s permit writers are located throughout the nation, principally in Virginia and Colorado. These permit writers lack professional engineering registration in California, have not sworn to uphold California laws and are unfamiliar with local conditions. Outsourcing has significantly increased the backlog of unrenewed permits.
Second, the Board stopped insisting upon a complete Reports of Waste Discharge (characterization of the waste stream) before processing a permit.
Third, fundamental regulatory requirements have been ignored and permit conditions have been weakened in an effort to eliminate costly opposition by dischargers.
Fourth, permittees operating in violation of their permits have been provided with extensions of compliance schedules in order to eliminate mandatory penalties and avoid having to initiate enforcement actions. Over the last year, CSPA has appealed some 30 permits to the State Water Board for violations of the most fundamental regulatory requirements of the Clean Water Act.
Without adequate staff, the Regional Board has turned to largely voluntary and predictably less effective alternatives to traditional regulation. For example, the Central Valley Region has over 45% of the state’s harvested timber. With only 9 individuals to cover thousands of timber harvest projects, the Board had no alternative but to turn to conditional waivers of waste discharge requirements and voluntary compliance to address the adverse impacts of logging.
Similarly, waivers were adopted to address waste discharges from irrigated lands. Under the agricultural waiver, coalitions of farmers oversee implementation of waiver conditions. These legally fictitious coalitions have no enforcement authority and cannot require an individual discharger to take any specific action. The Regional Board doesn’t know who is actually discharging, where the discharges are occurring, the constituents being discharged, the volume and concentration of discharged pollutants, whether management measures have been implemented or whether implemented measures are effective. Regulation of the largest source of pollution to Central Valley waterways has effectively been delegated to the voluntary goodwill of groups of dischargers. And the result is that virtually every agricultural dominated waterway is seriously polluted.
When the State Legislature eliminated funding of core regulatory functions from the General Fund, they expressly provided the State Water Board with the authority to assess fees to support necessary regulatory activities. However, the Schwarzenegger administration has refused to establish a fee schedule sufficient to comply with the law and protect water quality. Consequently, the water boards are increasingly relying upon inadequate cookie-cutter permits that ignore regulatory requirements and self-regulatory “stakeholder” driven programs that have never previously been successful in protecting water quality.
The Governor proclaims himself to globally environmentally concerned but we’re seeing a major retreat by his Administration’s day-to-day implementation of environmental laws and regulations. Rhetoric is meaningless without effective compliance.
The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance is a public benefit conservation and research organization established in 1983 for the purpose of conserving, restoring, and enhancing the state’s water quality and fishery resources and their aquatic ecosystems and associated riparian habitats. CSPA has actively promoted the protection of water quality and fisheries throughout California before state and federal agencies, the State Legislature and Congress and regularly participates in administrative and judicial proceedings on behalf of its members to protect, enhance, and restore California’s water quality and fisheries.