Today four commercial fisheries organizations filed a lawsuit accusing the California State Water Resources Control Board (the Water Board) of failing to fulfill their responsibility to protect clean water and public trust resources in the Bay Delta and Central Valley. At issue is the state’s failure to list long-suffering Delta waterways as impaired on its 303(d) list, a regulatory process that is required by the Clean Water Act.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, the North Coast Rivers Alliance, and the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association each work on behalf of commercial fishermen and women to protect their jobs and the living marine resources on which they depend. Without healthy salmon populations and functional river habitat free of toxic pesticides, the fishing way of life and thousands of coastal jobs are fundamentally threatened.
Fishermen say the Water Board consistently refuses to protect water quality from dangerously warm temperatures and toxic pesticide pollution. In this case, the Water Board wilfully ignored readily available data and instructions from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have lead to targeted protections. They compare the administratively delayed and legally mandated 303(d) listing process, which has lasted seven years despite a two year deadline, with the speed at which exemptions to water protection rules have been issued. These exemptions allowed massive water diversions and violations of water quality standards during California’s five year drought, the effects of which are still reverberating in coastal towns from Morro Bay to Crescent City. Fishermen say decisions like these are pushing salmon, and thus their industry and way of life, towards extinction.
“By failing to adequately protect critical salmon habitat, the State Board is failing to implement its fundamental responsibilities at a time when California’s salmon fishery is withering on the vine,” stated Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Two years ago nearly all endangered winter run king salmon in the Sacramento died because the river was allowed to overheat. Meanwhile, our fishery is facing a second year of disaster in a multi-decade period of decline. Inadequate environmental protection destroys fisheries and coastal communities, yet the Water Board is again us to sit back and wait for them to take action. Salmon fishing families cannot abide by these delays and derelictions of duty any longer.”
The fishing groups’ lawsuit claims that the Water Board refused to use readily available data that unequivocally show waterways such as the Sacramento River above the Delta are too warm to support anadromous fishes, including endangered winter run and the commercially important fall run king salmon. Further, the groups claim that toxic pyrethroid pesticides, which are known to harm fish and public health, were not adequately considered during the 303(d) listing process.
Regina Chichizola, watershed policy consultant for the Institute for Fisheries Resources, says that this is not a surprising outcome in a state that in some years over-allocates its water by a factor of five. She says the state often violates the public trust by letting regulated industries and polluters drive the processes that regulate them, but when fishermen or other clean water advocates engage, their concerns are largely ignored.
“The state of California is forcing its salmon into extinction and polluting its drinking water by failing to protect water quality and flows. We have watched year after year as the state ignored its own science and pushed for more diversions, misguided storage and conveyance projects, and poorly crafted regulations. It is time for the Water Board to do it’s job and use the tools they are required to use to protect our water quality and public trust fisheries before it’s too late.”