A Sacramento judge ruled this week that state water officials must do more to protect waterways, including the Salinas River, from pollutants contained in farm runoff.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ordered the state and Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Boards to create a new set of stiffer rules, saying a previous major ruling on the subject, known as the Ag Waiver, weakened environmental protections below what is permitted by state law.
The Salinas River has been plagued by high levels of farm chemicals, especially nitrates, a component of fertilizer used on numerous crops along the riparian route from San Luis Obispo County to the ocean just south of Moss Landing.
The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by the Otter Project and four other non-profit groups, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
According to a statement released by the plaintiffs, agricultural pollution is exempt from regulation by the federal Clean Water Act but is governed by California’s Water Quality Control Act. In a report released in 2010, Central Coast Water Board staff said a number of waterways in the Central Coast region have sustained “well documented, severe and widespread” contamination from ag runoff.
The water board staff concluded that serious steps were required to limit the impact on people and aquatic life. Attempts to stiffen the rules were met by stiff resistance from agriculture, however, and a series of appeals were filed seeking weaker regulation. In October 2013, the state board issued an order that sided with agriculture interests on most key points.
“The financial, legal, and political resources of big agriculture eviscerated and weakened the regulation. Agriculture has every right to use the public’s water but they do not have the right to return it so polluted that it kills the life that lives in it,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project.
The lawsuit took issue with the October 2013 ruling. Representing the coalition of environmental and fishing groups were the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic and the Golden Gate University Environmental Clinic. An individual client who claimed direct injury from the pollutants was represented by California Rural Legal Assistance.
A copy of the lawsuit and additional background can be found here.