By Sean Bothwell
Forty-nine years ago this week, Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act, with the goal of restoring America’s waters. Yet today, 95% of California’s rivers, lakes, bays and wetlands are plagued by pesticides, metals, pathogens, trash and sediment, making it unsafe to swim, fish or drink. As we approach the 50th anniversary of this landmark environmental legislation, it is time for the state to get on track toward ensuring swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters for all Californians.
Underserved communities of color shoulder far too much of the cost of unsafe water. But the state has increasingly treated these communities as water quality “sacrifice zones.” For example, communities along the Los Angeles River face the highest pollution levels statewide. But rather than adopt enforceable numeric water quality standards, the Newsom administration is pressuring the State Water Board to relax stormwater pollution standards in underserved communities of color.
The Newsom administration must instead hold polluters accountable. One solution is to ensure that low-income communities suffering poor health because of overexposure to environmental hazards are better represented in water quality regulatory decision-making. The Legislature should pass legislation requiring state and regional water boards to include at least one tribal or environmental justice representative. The state also should dedicate funding to aid participation by these environmental justice communities in the regulatory process.
The Clean Water Act has successfully reduced pollution from traditional industrial outfalls. Today, most pollution in California waters is caused by runoff from farms and cities, causing toxicity, respiratory diseases and gastrointestinal illness. For example, Stockton suffers from a growing number of harmful algal blooms. A 2020 outbreak measured up to 49 times the “danger” level. The state must set freshwater flow standards and nutrient water quality standards to prevent toxic algae blooms.
Across the state, subsistence fishers — low-income anglers often from immigrant communities — fish to feed their families. Yet a state study determined that fish in 99% of coastal waters and 49% of freshwaters exceed safe levels established for eating.
Mercury and polychlorinated-biphenyl (PCB) contamination is particularly alarming in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 2001, a Contra Costa County study determined that 70% of local anglers surveyed were Asian, African American or Latino, and 73% regularly ate fish that can be unsafe to consume.
Inadequate river flows have decimated California’s native fish populations, including salmon runs that are essential for tribes. A growing list of fish species teeter on the brink of extinction.
The state has promised for decades to create a set of rules known as a biological policy to protect the biological health of our waterways. It is time California met that promise.
The Newsom administration also must take a new approach to our flawed water rights system, which was created at a time when tribal land was seized, tribes were victims of genocide and many people of color were prohibited from owning land or water rights. California’s water rights system is at the core of systemic racism and inequality. This system is why tribes now face the loss of salmon runs. It is why communities of color, with polluted or dry groundwater wells and no rights to water from our rivers, are now forced to truck in drinking water.
Reducing pollution also can help California face increasingly frequent droughts brought about by changing climate. Capturing urban runoff can reduce pollution while creating water supply. Similarly, urban wastewater has historically been treated solely as waste — used once, treated and dumped. Today, more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually is discharged into coastal waters. Instead, we should upgrade the treatment of that water and reuse it — all of it. Orange County is a world leader in recycling wastewater. It’s time the rest of California caught up.
Over the coming year, Californians should demand that Gov. Gavin Newsom, the agencies he controls and the Legislature get serious about ensuring clean water for all.
Sean Bothwell is the executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance. CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.