Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
California Farmers Allowed to Pollute
On December 5, 2002, a California water quality board walked away from an historic opportunity to end pollution from farm runoff into the region's rivers and streams. Despite a vast quantity of evidence and an official declaration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that over 500 miles of rivers and streams and 480,000 acres of the Sacramento River Delta are polluted by pesticides and other pollutants, the Board voted to once again exempt farmers from the State's clean water laws.
Ignoring editorials from the four largest newspapers in the California Central Valley, thousands of comment letters, and their own plan to reduce pollution, the California's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board voted five to one to approve a waiver that continued to allow California farmers to release pesticide-laden farm runoff into rivers and streams. In an unusually blunt editorial, the Sacramento Bee wrote: "End the Farm Exemption, State Waterways are not Sewers."
The two principle laws regulating water pollution in California are the federal Clean Water Act (1972) and the state Porter-Cologne Act (1969). The federal Clean Water Act specifically exempts wastewater that runs off fields from general pollution permit processes. The Porter-Cologne Act, though it does not exempt farms, has a loophole that allows water boards to 'waive' the requirements of the law if it can be found to be in the public interest.
In 1982, when the initial waiver was approved, the Board simply stated that farm runoff was not a pollution problem and therefore regulation was unnecessary. Ironically, pesticide-related fish kills in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary peaked in 1982 with over 100,000 dead fish washing up on river shores. The ruling stood for 20 years until challenged by a coalition of California groups that included Waterkeepers, CalPIRG, PANNA and many others.
The Board's vote put into place a new two-year waiver during which time farmers will be required to develop monitoring and management plans either individually or through watershed associations. However, the waiver contains no benchmarks, no enforceable standards and no penalties if these plans fail to actually produce clean water.
Enthusiastically supported by industry, the new waiver is almost certainly at variance with the requirements of the law. At the December 5 hearing, Michael Lozeau, an attorney with EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund, presented a long list of legal deficiencies in the rule. Steve Orme, of PANNA, termed the Board's action "a testament to the political hold that agribusiness holds over the State's regulatory processes." The Board will reconsider the issue at it's March 1, 2003 meeting. Unless substantial revisions are made, environmentalists have warned that the issue will almost certainly be taken to the courts.
For California readers, the Clean Water, Clean Farms Campaign will be circulating a petition and organizing public testimony for the March 2003 meeting. To get involved, contact Sejal Choksi, at Waterkeepers, (415) 856-0444 x107 or visit the Clean Water website at: http://www.cleanfarmscleanwater.org/action.htm.