California farm pollution waiver challenged in court

SACRAMENTO, California, February 27, 2004 (ENS): A coalition of environmental and recreational fishing groups filed suit in California state court on Thursday in a bid to reverse the Central Valley Regional Water Board's decision to exempt more than 25,000 growers from clean water laws.

The organizations say the exemption allows pesticide and fertilizer discharges from more than seven million acres of farmland to contaminate the drinking water of millions of Californians and hundreds of miles of waterways in the state.

"There is hardly a Central Valley river or stretch of the Delta that is not degraded by agricultural pollution," said Earthjustice's Mike Lozeau, an attorney for the groups. "[California's] clean water act is supposed to protect and clean our waters, not protect and shield agribusiness from having to clean up their massive pollution."

Agricultural runoff is one of the largest sources of water pollution in California, and the farmers in the Central Valley apply an estimated 200 million pounds of toxic pesticides, along with millions of pounds of fertilizers, to their lands annually.

The impaired Central Valley waters are the primary source of drinking water for more 20 million Californians across the state - state and federal environmental officials have declared that many of these waters are unsafe for uses such as drinking, swimming, and/or fishing.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a long running battle against farm pollution in California's Central Valley. The $28 billion California agricultural sector has been waived from complying with the state's clean water laws since 1982.

Last July - despite fervent opposition by more than 200 public heath, environmental, fishing, and other organizations representing millions of Californians - the Central Valley Regional Water Board opted to adopt another exemption for the sector.

Seven public interest organizations filed an appeal to the California State Water Resources Control Board to overturn that decision, citing more than 50 scientific studies and the opinions of six independent scientists that demonstrated the renewed exemption would likely worsen water quality problems.

But last month the State Water Board rejected that appeal by a vote of five to zero and extended the waiver for three years.

The water board did direct the Central Valley Board and farmers to develop a 10 year plan to meet the water quality standards and a plan to monitor how the agricultural pollution is impacting water quality - but critics say that is hardly adequate.

The lawsuit, which includes claims against the State Water Board for upholding the decision, asserts the agencies violated California's core water quality laws and the California Environmental Quality Act.

The latter law requires the agencies to issue permits for substantial discharges of pollution and to assess the environmental impacts caused by agricultural runoff.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to vacate the exemption and to order the agencies to regulate the agricultural industry as required by law.

"The waiver exempts agriculture from regulations applicable to everyone else," said Deltakeeper Bill Jennings of Waterkeepers Northern California. "It does not require agribusiness to reduce a single pound of pollution, implement a single pollution prevention measure or meet a single water quality standard."

The coalition filing the lawsuit includes Deltakeeper (a project of Waterkeepers Northern California), Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Environment California, and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The suit was filed in Sacramento Superior Court.

The groups say neither agency responded to the volumes of scientific documents and expert testimonies in evidence, which show that the adopted monitoring program is inadequate and will fail to protect water quality.

"The decision sets a statewide precedent of ignoring Californians' need and overwhelming support for clean water," said Linda Sheehan, director of The Ocean Conservancy's Pacific Office. "Californians rightfully expect clean beaches, fishable rivers and safe drinking water. By contrast, the state's decision ignores California's growing water crisis and fritters away the limited supply we have left."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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