A Water Agenda for Governor Brown - Clean Water for California's Future
Posted January 3, 2011
This is the final in a series of recommendations for an ambitious water agenda for Governor Brown. You can find the compiled recommendations here.
California is a land of contrasts. One place where that diversity is obvious is in the quality of the state’s water. Yes, California has the world’s largest plumbing system. Some of those water projects provide crystal clear water from pristine Sierra watersheds. California has sparkling mountain lakes and streams. On the other hand, with the nation’s largest population and largest agricultural economy, have come serious water quality problems. These problems take many forms and their implications are remarkably broad.
In some California communities, water from groundwater wells is too contaminated to drink, leading to the closure of thousands of drinking water wells state-wide. The water at some of our beaches is often unsafe for swimming, particularly after storms. In some of our rivers, fish are unsafe to eat. Altogether, the State Water Board lists over 1,700 severely polluted water bodies. Here’s a site that can help you find the contaminated river or lake near you.
Forty years ago, some of the pollution problems facing the nation’s rivers were highly visible – captured in a single moment when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. Today, however, our water quality problems are less visible, but no less important. Together, they represent a growing threat to our beaches, our drinking water and the health of our rivers.
Solving the state’s water supply and fishery problems will only be possible if the state increases its efforts to ensure safe, clean water. Here are a few key suggestions:
Reform the State Water Board: My colleagues have mentioned on several occasions the need for reform at the State and Regional Water Boards. Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the dysfunctional process for adopting municipal stormwater permits, which has become so unwieldy and confused (and in some cases, error ridden) as to effectively cripple the process. The result has been multiple appeals and lawsuits -- and weakened protections for our waters and coast. The problems in the Board’s actions -- lack of transparency, lack of coordination between regions, substantive and clerical errors, and last minute and poorly developed changes that ignore scientific facts and legal requirements -- are repeated, in varying degrees, with each round of permitting. The State Board needs to provide better guidance to and oversight of its subordinate Regional Boards, to ensure a more streamlined, consistent, and transparent process that will protect California’s aquatic resources.
Improving Drinking Water Quality: Governor Brown’s campaign emphasized efforts to empower and involve communities in decisions that affect them. Fortunately, this is one of the keys to providing clean drinking water for communities that rely on contaminated groundwater. This problem is particularly acute in the Central Valley. Many of the communities that suffer from contaminated groundwater are disadvantaged and lack the resources of larger water districts. One key to making progress here is developing partnerships to connect communities with poor drinking water quality with larger, neighboring water districts. For example, agricultural water districts can often simply swap clean surface water for tainted groundwater.
When California’s current integrated regional water management program was created, it was intended, in part, to address these problems by incorporating them in regional programs. However, the IRWM program has been dominated by the largest water districts – often ignoring the needs of disadvantaged communities. In the future, IRWM funding should be conditioned on addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities, particularly those suffering from severe groundwater contamination. This can be done immediately by prioritizing existing bond funds to implement both short and long-term solutions.
Making Beaches Safe to Swim: Stormwater runoff is a significant source of pollution at our beaches, but monitoring programs aimed at protecting the public health are severely underfunded -- problematic for a state that relies heavily on coastal tourism. Swimming in contaminated waters can cause illnesses including gastroenteritis, skin rashes, eye infections, and respiratory ailments. The public needs to be informed when it is unsafe to swim at our beaches, but in 2008, funds for the beach water quality monitoring program were cut from the state budget. State bond funds have temporarily sustained a bare bones monitoring program, but the funding will expire in 2011, and in the meantime “health testing of California's beaches has slumped to its lowest level since ocean monitoring became law more than a decade ago, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at greater risk of exposure to contaminated water.” The state should fully reinstate funding for its beach monitoring program to protect the public health.
Ultimately, the solution to the pollution of our beaches is capturing runoff through low impact development, or “LID” -- which we previously identified as an important water supply source. LID has been identified by the California Ocean Protection Council as a “practicable and superior” means of addressing stormwater runoff.
Getting Serious About Agricultural Runoff: Agricultural runoff threatens our rivers and groundwater with a toxic stew including everything from pesticides to concentrated dairy waste. State-wide, nearly 10,000 river miles and more than 500,000 acres of lakes are listed as polluted by agricultural runoff. Unfortunately, the state’s regulatory program currently treats agriculture differently from other industries – leading to nearly unregulated runoff and major contamination problems. Governor Brown should direct the State Water Board to develop a comprehensive effort to reduce ongoing agricultural contamination. If the existing agricultural waiver is going to survive, the State Board must demonstrate that this program will require the timely attainment of water quality standards.
One of the best ways to reduce this runoff is to improve agricultural water use efficiency – another key source of water supply. Some agricultural leaders have argued that excessive water applied to farm land merely runs off into our rivers, making it available to downstream water users. Of course, this reasoning ignores the contaminants that run off farm land along with wasted water. In much of the state, increasing agricultural water use efficiency will directly improve water quality.
Above all, the Brown Administration’s water policy should recognize that the state’s water resources are a single interconnected water cycle. An effective, visionary water policy should reflect the fact that groundwater and surface water are connected. It should acknowledge that pollution is just as damaging when it comes off city streets and farm land as it is when discharged from traditional industries and sewage treatment plants. Restoring fisheries and cleaning up pollution can both improve water supply reliability. Most importantly, the state’s new water policies should recognize that the best solutions to our water problems are integrated ones, offering multiple benefits, including water supply, quality, ecosystem health – and even climate and energy.
Contrary to the assertions of some pundits, the state’s water problems can be solved. The key, however, is a clear-eyed recognition that we need solutions designed to meet our needs today. In many cases, those solutions will be different from those in the past.
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