San Luis Obispo Superior Court Strikes Down Regional Water Board Policy Allowing Agricultural Group to Keep Water Pollution Data Secret
Court Rules in Favor of Public Access to Pollution Information
On October 28, 2016, in a victory for local residents and the environment, a San Luis Obispo judge ruled that the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board had improperly allowed an agricultural coalition to keep important water pollution records and data from the public. “There is no justification for such obfuscation,” wrote Superior Court Judge Charles S. Crandall in his 21-page opinion.
Carmen Zamora, a resident of rural Monterey County, and the Environmental Law Foundation (“ELF”) filed a lawsuit in May, 2015 seeking an end to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s policy of allowing growers to keep groundwater data secret. The court ruled Friday that this policy violated both the California Water Code and the California Public Records Act.
Nitrate pollution is the main threat to drinking water for farmworker communities throughout the Central Coast Region. Nitrate pollution comes from irrigated agricultural operations and contaminated water seeps into these communities’ aquifers. Drinking water polluted with nitrate harms people in many ways, and children are particularly vulnerable. Nitrate can cause birth defects, cancer, potentially deadly “blue baby syndrome,” thyroid, spleen, and kidney disease.
Growers in the Central Coast are required to test drinking water wells on their property and notify tenants and the Regional Board if the water is polluted with nitrate. The court ruled that a group of growers, known as the Central Coast Groundwater Coalition, improperly kept records of these notifications secret.
Ms. Zamora, represented by California Rural Legal Assistance, spent two years seeking documents and data and attempting to convince the Regional Board to abandon this policy. “This ruling gives small communities like Ms. Zamora’s access to information about where contaminated water exists and allows them to verify that residents have been notified about their water being contaminated,” said Mike Meuter, attorney for CRLA.
“The court recognized that the Regional Board’s policy violated fundamental principles of democratic governance,” said James Wheaton, legal director for ELF. “The Board delegated its regulatory authority over growers to a group which is entirely controlled by the growers themselves.”
“Today’s decision sends a strong message that public agencies cannot hide behind private parties to shield what would otherwise be considered a public document,” said Cherokee Melton, attorney for the First Amendment Project, which represents both ELF and Ms. Zamora. “To allow that would render the Public Records Act and everything it stands for meaningless.”
This ruling may have ripple effects across the state as regulators in the Central Valley and the Central Coast are currently revamping their agricultural pollution rules.
The ruling is available at: http://www.envirolaw.org/documents/ZamoraOrder.pdf
Water Strategies for the Next Administration: New Major U.S. Water Policy Recommendations
A new Science article, written by the Pacific Institute’s chief scientist and president emeritus, Peter Gleick, will be published in the journal tomorrow, November 4th. The article identifies major water-related challenges facing the United States and offers explicit recommendations for strategies the next administration and Congress should pursue, domestically and internationally.
The article begins:
“Issues around fresh water arenot particularly high on the U.S. political agenda. They should be. Water problems directly threaten food production, fisheries, energy generation, foreign policy, public health, and international security. Access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water is vital to well-being and to the economy. Yet U.S. water systems, once the envy of the world, are falling into disrepair and new threats loom on the horizon.”
Six key challenges are addressed:
- Inconsistent, overlapping, and inefficient Federal responsibilities for fresh water.
- Incomplete basic water science and data.
- Obsolete and decaying critical water infrastructure.
- Growing links between water conflicts and threats to U.S. national security.
- The failure to provide safe, affordable water to all Americans.
- The worsening threat of climate change for U.S. water resources.
The article offers recommendations in each of these areas and suggests that water policy offers an opportunity for bipartisan agreement. The report’s author, Dr. Peter Gleick, says “National water issues have been sadly neglected for far too long. The new administration has many opportunities to build a 21st century national water system with broad public support. During the 2016 campaign, both presidential candidates have indicated their backing for clean water and concern over recent water-quality problems in cities like Flint, Michigan.”
Among the recommendations in the Science Policy Forum piece are a call for a bipartisan water commission to make specific policy suggestions to Congress and the White House; an expansion of national efforts to collect, manage, and share water data; modernization of federal water-quality laws; testing for lead and other contaminants in every school in the country and remediation of any problems; new incentives for improved urban and agricultural water use technologies; an expansion of diplomatic efforts to reduce water conflicts; a boost in resources available for domestic and international programs to provide safe water and sanitation for all; and the integration of climate science into water management and planning at federal agencies and facilities.
In the article Gleick concludes:
“We have neglected the nation’s fresh water far too long. The next administration and Congress have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure federal agencies, money, and regulations work to protect our waters, citizens, communities, and national interests.”
The author, Dr. Peter Gleick, is co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute and currently serves as chief scientist. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur Fellow.
Weekly Water and Climate Update: Winter snowpack underway in the western mountains
From the USDA:
The Natural Resources Conservation Service produces this weekly report using data and products from the National Water and Climate Center and other agencies. The report focuses on seasonal snowpack, precipitation, temperature, and drought conditions in the U.S.
High-elevation snowpack has begun to accumulate in the mountains of the West. The map of the western U.S. modeled snow depth is from the National Weather Service, National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center. The northern Cascades and northern Rocky Mountains have over two feet of snow in the higher elevations, whereas the Sierra Nevada snowpack is over one foot at the highest peaks. The central and southern Rockies have been warm and dry and are reporting a few inches of snow depth in the south to nearly two feet farther north in the Teton Mountains of western Wyoming.
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About News Worth Noting: News Worth Noting is a collection of press releases, media statements, and other materials produced by federal, state, and local government agencies, water agencies, and academic institutions, as well as non-profit and advocacy organizations. News Worth Noting also includes relevant legislator statements and environmental policy and legal analyses that are publicly released by law firms. If your agency or organization has an item you would like included here, please email it to Maven.