Suit Targets Water Quality Enforcement

John Driscoll/The Times-Standard Posted February 5, 2009

Environmental and fishing groups on Wednesday sued state water boards over what they say is a failure to put enforceable water quality standards in place to protect North Coast rivers and fish.

The groups, which include the Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, claim the State Water Resources Control Board and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board have violated state law by allowing delays in enforcing water quality standards.

They want the agencies to draft enforceable standards on how much sediment can be allowed in streams and how warm streams are allowed to get from land uses like logging, mining, building and grazing. That would improve habitat for salmon and steelhead, they say, and provide for their recovery.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, claims that the agencies have abused their discretion by not finishing the plans.

“They’re not just behind,” said Scott Greacen with EPIC, “they’re pretty much stalled out.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was sued in the 1990s for not protecting North Coast streams, and ended up agreeing to set pollution limits, called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs.

The state is required under California law to craft plans to implement those measures. Of some 33 TMDLs, the North Coast board has finished four.

North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer Catherine Kuhlman said that her agency has done the work to ensure water quality standards are upheld through permitting and watershed programs to improve streams.

Kuhlman said board staff are stretched too thin to have a person assigned to every watershed — especially considering that the office employs half what it did in 2000. She added that the agency is still diligently enforcing water quality law, but it is resource intensive to produce the implementation plans.

“It’s more about boots on the ground than paper on the shelf,” Kuhlman said.

There is no enforcement mechanism by which the EPA can press the state to put the implementation plans in place, said EPA standards and TMDL Office Chief Janet Hashimoto. And while Hashimoto said that the TMDLs themselves cannot be enforced until the state takes action, she added that the regional boards have their hands full with many other regulations.

“We would like to see it eventually,” Hashimoto said of the state implementation plans.

The North Coast board has finished plans for the Garcia, Scott, Shasta and Salmon rivers, although it hasn’t yet rolled the Salmon River document into its basin plan. The Klamath River plan has become a priority, given developments on the river regarding dam removal and a federal relicensing process.

Greacen said that while state agencies are stretched with economic and budget constraints, he believes the enforceable plans are not dispensable, and are critical to improving conditions in the streams.

“These aren’t luxuries,” he said, “they’re necessities.”

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