skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Barry Nelson’s Blog

A Water Agenda for Governor Brown - Clean Water for California's Future

Barry Nelson

Posted January 3, 2011

, , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

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. 

A Water Agenda for Governor Brown

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. 

Share | | |


MikeJan 4 2011 12:24 PM

Despite the author's claims, the current ag waiver program for water runoff has been successful. Testing of waters that was unheard of years ago is now going on as farmers are adopting practices to curtail runoff. The author also fails to recognize that increased water use efficiency is also a common practice for California farmers. Take a look at the numbers from the California Water Plan...DWR says ag's economic efficiency has doubled over the last 40 years while applied water use has dropped by 14.6%.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

LaJan 4 2011 06:12 PM

This is a great article highlighting the main problems to our water quality. Stormwater pollution is a real and serious issue that can be prevented by taking simple steps. If you live in the Los Angeles area and you want to learn more ways you can prevent stormwater pollution check out

Barry NelsonJan 4 2011 08:01 PM

MIke - Thanks for the comments. I have to note that you praise the ag waiver program for increasing the measurement of discharges. That, of course, is a first step. But the far more important measure is whether the program has actually achieved compliance with water quality criteria. It'd be difficult to argue that the ag. waiver program has been anywhere near as effective as the regulatory program applied to traditional discharges (e.g. refineries and sewage treatment plants.) If you'd like to save the ag. waiver program, I'd welcome your thoughts about improving it.

And, of course, you are right that some farmers in California are highly efficient. I've written about that in the past. However, high water application rates and the prevalence of flood irrigation suggest that there is a great deal of potential for additional savings from agricultural conservation.


Aaron KingJan 4 2011 09:52 PM

The current ag waiver program is the neglected step child left with the drunken uncle. Owner-run coalitions that decide what is tested when, and by whom, are not the characteristics of a legitimate testing regime. Lets not forget the decades of lawsuits that it took to get any testing whatsoever. There is not nearly enough testing being done, it is not done in the right locations, and timing is critical. The devil is in the details. There is virtually no concern in the part of the coalitions with compliance.

Something that the author might have mentioned is the issue of salts. There are darn few "efficient" water-users in the ag world, not because they dont want to use less water, though some may not, but because of the need to leach salts out of the soil. Long term implementation of efficient water use practices is not sustainable. We need a way to treat the runoff and put it back into the system clean, rather than trying to reduce the runoff itself. In general, farmers pay for water, so they are already being as efficient as makes sense given the economics of the thing.

In the end, it may not be possible to have our cake and eat it too. We should pick the low-hanging fruit first. There are some forms of ag that are vastly more wasteful and polluting than others. Ranching and Dairy are at the top of that list. You want clean water? Start there. By far the worst environmental actors in CA. Recent science (see Subak 1999, and for some examples) indicates cattle are as much of a problem as transportation for global climate change, and the water argument is indisputable. All this so we can eat many times more beef and dairy than the previous several thousand generations of humans? Its not like its good for us! Heart disease, cancer, obesity - all are clearly documented results of over-consumption of beef and dairy. The beef and dairy industry have waged a campaign of advocacy over the last 60 years that has brought the small family-owned and operated ranch/dairy owners to their knees, and at the same time has convinced the public that we need to eat this stuff all the time. Start there.

/rant off - back to work for me

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Barry Nelson’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In