Coalition urges water board to stop agribusiness pollution

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — While municipalities, industry and other water users are subject to water quality standards when they discharge waste water into rivers and streams, agribusiness in the Central Valley and other farming areas of California continue to be exempt from the same pollution controls that others must live by.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in July 2003 issued waivers for waste discharges from irrigated farm land, in spite of protests by the Clean Waters/Clean Farms coalition, a wide-ranging coalition of fishing, farming and environmental justice organizations.

That waiver, adopted in July 2003 under pressure from powerful San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests, provided for the establishment of “voluntary coalitions” comprised of farmers to establish voluntary programs to address agriculture’s massive pollution of Central Valley waterways, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The board, in its meeting in Rancho Cordova on June 22-23, will vote whether or not to extend these waivers. Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Carrie McNeil, the Deltakeeper, John Beuttler, spokesman for the Allied Fishing Groups, and others are urging anglers and their supporters to oppose the granting of another waiver for five years.

“Agriculture is the greatest source of unregulated pollution in the Central Valley,” said Jennings. “Agricultural pollution has been unregulated for 40 years. Three years ago the board granted a waiver for agricultural discharge, relying upon voluntary coalitions and programs to deal with pollution. However, voluntary methods don’t work — if they did we wouldn’t need any civil or criminal codes. If we want to restore delta and Central Valley fisheries, we must bring the largest source of unregulated discharge under control.”

Agribusiness discharges a “witch’s brew” of herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, fertilizers and all sorts of nutrients and sediments into valley waterways, without any regulation or enforcement, according to Jennings. There has been in recent years an amazing amount of “remobilization” of banned toxic chemicals like DDT into valley waterways as land laced with these pesticides is irrigated. Scientists are constantly finding new chemicals and mixtures of chemicals in agricultural wastewater.

“One thing is clear,” said Jennings. “Several years of monitoring agriculturally dominated waterways by U.C.-Davis staff and limited monitoring by the coalitions have established that the problem is far worse than we ever imagined. Virtually all of these water bodies violate numerous water quality standards and most are toxic to aquatic life.”

Anglers, commercial fishermen, Indian Tribes, environmental justice advocates must join together again with a united voice and send a strong and urgent message to the regional board that the public will not tolerate renewing this waiver that has led to continued degradation of Central Valley rivers and the Bay-Delta Estuary.

The attempt of the board to renew this waiver becomes even more alarming in the light of the current food chain/pelagic chain crash that federal and state scientists are currently documenting in the delta.

The DFG’s annual trawl net survey last fall revealed the lowest ever population of delta smelt, the second lowest-ever population of longfin smelt, the second lowest documented young-of-the-year stripers, and the tenth lowest population of threadfin shad, according to Chuck Armor, DFG biologist. The threadfin shad population decline over the past several years is particularly alarming, since the shad are considered a very hardy and adaptable fish.

The federal and state governments are currently investigating the causes of a dramatic food chain decline that includes these four species, as well as plankton species that they and other fish forage upon. The three major possible causes they are exploring are (1) changes in delta water exports (2) the proliferation of invasive species and (3) toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides found in agricultural wastewaters. The main source of the toxic chemicals implicated in the pelagic organism decline is agricultural wastewater discharge.

In a letter to the board in late May, Beuttler of Allied Fishing Groups emphasized the severe impact that toxics have had upon the delta ecosystem — and blasted the voluntary coalitions and programs as not addressing or improving the situation with the continued discharged of toxic, pesticide-laden water into Central Valley rivers.

“Today key pelagic organisms are on the verge of collapse,” Beuttler said. “Biologists point to the degraded water quality in the delta as one of the probable principal causes. Given the condition of the estuary, the numerous species of fish now listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts and the long the long term declines of many species, it is time to stop destroying the public fishery resources by allowing huge amounts of toxic flows to be discharged into the delta.”

Beuttler urged the board to adopt General Waste Discharge Requirements — the water quality standards that all other water users have to comply with — rather than a waiver as they provide the most effective and enforceable approach for addressing agricultural pollution.

However, if the board insists on extending the agricultural waiver, he urged it at least to adopt performance goals and yardsticks to require measurable reductions in “pollution mass loading.” All of these measures should have “enforceable timelines” also.

Jennings and McNeill, in a joint statement, detailed how the so-called “voluntary” program is a complete disaster.

“The voluntary coalitions have failed to comply with the most basic waiver requirements including submission of reports, establishment of adequate monitoring programs, or development and implementation of measures to reduce pollution,” they said. “They have even refused to provide the regional board with membership lists so that the board could determine who is in the program.”

Consequently, after three years of waiver implementation, they say that the regional board does not know who is discharging pollutants, what pollutants are being discharged, who is participating in the waiver program, or who has or has not implemented best management practices to reduce the toxic effects of agricultural discharges. The volunteer program appears to be the proverbial case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Jennings and McNeil also criticized the regional board for failing to initiate enforcement for failure to comply with the explicit conditions of the waiver they adopted and never requiring the coalitions to develop management plans identifying how identified water quality problems will be addressed.

The regional board is proposing a five-year renewal of those waivers, but the proposed new waiver is actually weaker than the one it replaces. “It contains no accountability, no requirement to identify dischargers and provides no assurance that a single management measure to reduce pollution will be implemented or a single pound of pollutant loading will be eliminated,” according to Jennings and McNeill.

“With plummeting numbers of native fish and their food, with growing concerns about drinking water quality, and with continued impairment to the vast Central Valley watershed, we cannot afford this proposed, weaker 2006 waiver,” they concluded.

Already, the coalition has sent a letter of opposition to the regional board with 48 different organizations signed on. In the letter, doctors, teachers, students, farmworkers, birders, fishermen, environmentalists, public health advocates, cancer advocacy groups, women’s groups, legal defenders, recreational boaters, surfers, political activists, community groups and concerned citizens addressed their “strong opposition” to the proposed conditional waiver for irrigated agriculture.

Organizers say California agribusiness must not be allowed to destroy fisheries and drinking water supplies by continuing to get away with discharges of toxic, contaminated water into Central Valley rivers.

The “voluntary” program instituted by the water board has not succeeded, organizers say, and it is time that California agribusiness, with its use of many herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and other chemicals that it discharges into waterways, be held accountable for what it is doing to the environment.

The coalition has urged maximum attendance at the hearing. Those who cannot attend are urged to write a letter to the board’s members, urging them to voice their strong opposition to the proposed conditional waiver for irrigated agribusiness.

The meeting is scheduled to take place at the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board, 11020 Sun Center Drive, Suite 200, Rancho Cordova, Calif., beginning at 9:30 a.m. on June 22.

Send your letter indicating your opposition to the waiver to: Mr. Robert Schneider, Chair Board Members Attn: Pamela Creedon, Executive Officer Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board 11020 Sun Center Dr., No. 200 Rancho Cordova CA 95670-6114