Victory for defenders of Californian waterways

California river
Ruling requires state compliance with the Clean Water Act.


A coalition of river and coastal defenders have won a major victory against the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board), securing an order that requires the Water Board to meet the statutory deadlines for its list of impaired waterways in California.

The lawsuit focused on the Water Board’s violations of the Clean Water Act and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, the latter being California’s guiding clean water law that protects the health of the state’s inland and coastal waters.

Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney of Earth Law Center, said: "This victory will ensure that the State Water Board upholds its basic legal duty to identify and restore impaired waterways in a timely manner. This is an important step towards reversing the historic decline of aquatic ecosystems across California."

Late submissions

Earth Law Center, Los Angeles Waterkeeper (LAW), and San Diego Coastkeeper filed suit in November 2017, challenging the Water Board’s Integrated Report process. The Integrated Report contains the previously mentioned list of impaired waterways, along with a broader report on overall water quality.

For nearly two decades, California has submitted its biennial Integrated Report years late, resulting in water quality decisions that are based on severely outdated information. For example, California's 2014 Integrated Report was submitted to the US EPA more than three years and six months late. As a result of this ruling, the Water Board must submit reports on time.

Arthur Pugsley, senior attorney at LAW, said: “It was clear that the State Water Board was not taking the impaired waters lists as seriously as they should be or allocating the staff resources necessary for such an important program. 

"The Integrated Reports are foundational. Considering the necessity of these reports to inform the public of possible health threats and to trigger the adoption of restoration plans, this ruling is a victory not only for our waterways, but for the people and wildlife of California.”

Matt O’Malley, executive director and managing attorney at San Diego Coastkeeper, said: “This victory should result in a more up-to-date and complete understanding of the challenges our waterways are facing, ensuring increased efficacy of restoration and recovery plans."

Healthy ecosystems

Bruce Reznik, executive director of LAW, said: “We are pleased with the ruling, but it is unfortunate that watchdog groups have to bring suit in order to get the Water Board to abide by what the Clean Water Act requires of it."

Grant Wilson, directing attorney at Earth Law Center, said: “While we prevailed in ensuring the Water Board fulfils its obligations under the Clean Water Act, we are disappointed by the dismissal of our plea to consider hydromodification (i.e., channelization) as an impairment itself when compiling its list of impaired waterways. 

"Drained and fragmented waterways challenge species that are critical to our ecosystem, and those challenges will only intensify with the impacts of climate change.

"Our groups will continue working to ensure that the concretization that has devastated so many of our river systems in California is recognized for the negative impact it has on our environment and our communities and will work to restore them to healthy ecosystems.“

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from the Earth Law Centre. 

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