Nearing the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, Assemblyman Robert Rivas held a press conference on Feb. 2 to discuss the proposed California Clean Water Act, AB 377. The legislation, co-introduced by Rivas and state Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg, would work to ensure all rivers, lakes, oceans and other bodies of water in California are clean enough for drinking, swimming and fishing purposes by 2050.
Along with Rivas, chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and vice chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, a coalition of Californians spoke on what it would take to provide access to clean water to underserved communities. Speakers included Sherri Norris, tribal engagement coordinator with the California Indian Environmental Alliance; Glen H. Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations; and Terry Sawyer, owner of Hog Island Oyster Co.
At the conference, Rivas said the original intent of the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act was to clean up all waterways throughout the country by 1985, including his own District 30, which encompasses parts of four counties—including all of San Benito County, Monterey County south to Camp Roberts, Santa Clara County to Morgan Hill, and Santa Cruz County over to Watsonville—an area in which he said there are approximately 145 impaired bodies of water.
“It’s now 2021, and that cleanup did not happen as advertised,” Rivas said. “We’re still struggling with many of the same problems as we were in the 1970s.”
According to Rivas, roughly 19 out of 20 waterways in California are considered polluted or impaired.
“That includes 82% of rivers and streams, 93% of lakes and ponds, and an astounding 99% of wetlands, bays and estuaries,” he said. “And it’s our low-income communities, our communities, our most vulnerable populations, our communities of color that have been and continue to be the hardest hit.”
If approved, the California Clean Water Act would work to achieve its 2050 deadline by addressing three areas: eliminating loopholes in water board permits that allow discharges into waterways; updating water board enforcement procedures so those who violate their permits or pollute waterways will face consequences; and prioritizing the remediation of impaired waterways that would reallocate funding to poorer communities.
“These changes would mean we can bring one-third of our impaired waterways into compliance every decade between now and 2050,” he said. “My hope is that when my daughters are my age, they will be able to enjoy clean water anywhere in California, no matter which neighborhood or zip code they choose to settle down in.”
Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, spoke during the conference and said loopholes in permits can range from “dischargers” into waterways being allowed to come up with their own methods of compliance rather than meeting water quality standards included in the permit.
“In the agriculture context, there are a lot of permits that don’t require monitoring necessary for the governments to determine whether anyone is in compliance or not,” Bothwell said. “Sometimes there is regional monitoring that can be shielded or there are confidentiality issues where they don’t necessarily have to report all their data. Even those we do know are not achieving water quality standards are given decades, sometimes up to 50 years to come into compliance.”
Jeff Cattaneo, operations manager for the San Benito County Water District, read the text of the proposed California Clean Water Act and told BenitoLink that his district was in favor of any legislation to improve water quality, but has reservations about how this bill would achieve Rivas’s goals.
“There’s not a whole lot new here,” Cattaneo said. “The regional and state boards have been actively seeking to address these issues. They’ve identified the water bodies that have exceeded the total maximum daily load of toxins and bacteria. A lot of these things are difficult because they haven’t identified the sources of them.”
Cattaneo said many contaminants, such as mercury, are naturally occurring or are “legacy issues” leftover from mining and farming operations going back decades, making it difficult to address today.
He said he does not know the location of the 145 impaired water bodies Rivas said are located in his district, adding that only two have been identified in San Benito County by the Federal Clean Water Act 303 (d) Impaired Waters and Total Maximum Daily Loads section.
“There’s the Tequisquita Slough, which crosses under Shore Road, because of nutrients from farming and the fact that not a lot of water or flushing action flows through there and takes water off Santa Ana Creek,” Cattaneo said. “Also, Hernandez Reservoir, which has been designated as impaired because of mercury mining operations, which isn’t a problem other than the fact you can’t eat the fish and it’s not open to the public because it’s surrounded by private property.”
Rivas said he is not naive and realizes it will be a long fight to clean the state’s waterways.
“We’re on the right side of history and it’s my moral obligation as a legislator to protect the health and well-being of not only those in my district, but the residents across the state,” he said. “We have set the bar very high when it comes to ensuring we protect the environment and access to clean, healthy water.”
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