As the 50th anniversary of the Federal Clean Water Act approaches, it’s time for the state to get on track to ensure safe waters for everyone to swim, fish and drink Californians.
By Sean Bothwell, Special for CalMatters
Sean Bothwell is the executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.
Forty-nine years ago this week, Congress passed the Federal Clean Water Act, in an effort to restore U.S. waters. Yet today 95% of California’s rivers, lakes, bays and wetlands are plagued by pesticides, metals, pathogens, waste and sediment, making swimming, fishing or drinking unsafe. Approaching 50e anniversary of this historic environmental legislation, it is time for the state to get on the right track to ensure swimmable, fishable and potable waters for all Californians.
Underserved communities of color bear too much the cost of unsafe water. But the state has increasingly treated these communities as “sacrifice zones” for water quality. For example, communities along the Los Angeles River face the highest pollution levels statewide. But rather than adopting enforceable digital water quality standards, the Newsom administration is pressuring the State Water Board to relax stormwater pollution standards in underserved communities of color.
Rather, the Newsom administration must hold polluters to account. One solution is to ensure that low-income communities suffering from poor health due to overexposure to environmental risks are better represented in decision-making about water quality regulation. The legislature should pass legislation requiring state and regional water boards to include at least one representative from tribal or environmental justice. The state should also devote funds to the participation of these environmental justice communities in the regulatory process.
The Clean Water Act has succeeded in reducing pollution from traditional industrial outlets. Today, more pollution in Californian waters is caused by runoff from farms and towns, causing toxicity, respiratory disease and gastrointestinal illness. For example, Stockton is suffering an increasing number of harmful algal blooms. A 2020 epidemic measured up to 49 times the level of “danger”. The state must establish freshwater flow standards and nutrient water quality standards to prevent toxic algal blooms.
Across the state, subsistence fishermen – low-income fishermen often from immigrant communities – fish to feed their families. Yet a state study determined that fish in 99% of coastal waters and 49% of freshwater exceed security levels established to eat.
Contamination by mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is particularly alarming in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 2001, a Contra Costa County Study found that 70% of local fishermen surveyed were Asian, African American or Latino, and 73% regularly ate fish that can be dangerous to eat.
Insufficient river flows have decimated California’s native fish populations, including the salmon runs that are essential to the tribes. A growing list of fish species is on the brink of extinction.
The state has promised for decades to create a set of rules known as organic policy to protect the biological health of our waterways. It is time for California to keep that promise.
The Newsom administration must also take a new approach to our flawed water rights system, which was created at a time when tribal lands were seized, tribes were victims of genocide and scores of people were killed. of color were prohibited from owning rights to land or water. California’s water rights system is at the heart of racism and systemic inequalities. This system is the reason why the tribes are now faced with the loss of salmon runs. This is why communities of color, with polluted or dried up groundwater wells and no rights to water from our rivers, are now forced to haul clean water by truck.
Reducing pollution can also help California cope with increasingly frequent droughts caused by climate change. Capturing urban runoff can reduce pollution while creating a water supply. Likewise, urban wastewater has historically been treated only as waste – used once, treated and discharged. Today, more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water are released into coastal waters each year. Instead, we should improve the treatment of that water and reuse it – all of it. Orange County is a world leader in wastewater recycling. It’s time for the rest of California to catch up.
In the coming year, Californians should demand that Gov. Gavin Newsom, the agencies he oversees, and the legislature take seriously the guarantee of safe drinking water for all.