California waters showing toxicity increase 170 percent

California waters showing toxicity increase 170 percent

by Dan Bacher

California has a “green” reputation throughout the country, but this reputation is largely undeserved when one considers the fact that the number of California rivers, lakes and coastal waters showing toxicity has increased dramatically since 2006, as exposed in a list of polluted waterways released today.

The alarming list, submitted by the state of California to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and finalized by the agency on October 11, reveals that more of California’s waterways are impaired than previously known. Increased water monitoring data shows the number of rivers, streams and lakes in California exhibiting overall toxicity have increased 170 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to Nahal Mogharabi, spokesman for the California EPA, in a news release.

“California has some of the most magnificent rivers, lakes and coastal waters in the country,” according to Mogharabi. “However, of its 3.0 million acres of lakes, bays, wetlands and estuaries, 1.6 million acres are not meeting water quality goals, and 1.4 million acres still need a pollution clean-up plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).”

Of the 215,000 miles of shoreline, streams and rivers, 30,000 miles are not meeting water quality goals, and 20,000 miles still need a TMDL. The most common contaminants in these waterways are pesticides and bacteria, followed by metals and nutrients.

The report was released at a time when the state proceeds forward with the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create so-called “marine protected areas” off the California coast. These “marine protected areas,” in a clear example of corporate greenwashing, fail to protect coastal waters from pollution, oil spills and drilling, corporate aquaculture, military testing, wave and wind energy projects and all other human impacts upon the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

The report also follows on the heels of a June decision by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board to continue granting agribusiness “permits to pollute” Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley waterways in a controversial agricultural waiver program.

“Clean water is vital to California’s public health, economy, recreation and wildlife,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “California has done an excellent job of increasing the amount of water monitored. Unfortunately, much of the new data points in the wrong direction. This list of impaired waters is a wake-up call to continue the critical local and statewide work needed to heal California’s damaged waters.“

The Clean Water Act requires states to monitor and assess their waterways and submit a list of impaired waters to EPA for review, according to Mogharabi. The 2010 list is based on more comprehensive monitoring as well as new assessment tools that allow the state to evaluate larger quantities of data.

The data showed several important trends including:

• Many more beaches, both inland and coastal, are on the 2010 list because bacteria reached unsafe levels for swimming. This increase is largely driven by a more extensive review of data collected by counties.

• Better reporting of trash in waters has led to an increase in trash impairments by 76% from 2006 to 2010. California’s statewide Trash Policy is under development and will address trash impacts to both local wildlife and reduce California’s contribution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

• The numbers of listings showing pollutants in fish are at levels too high for safe human consumption has increased 24% from 2006 to 2010, with the greatest increases seen in mercury. Rather than signaling an increase in fish contamination, this trend is due to California’s recent statewide sport fish monitoring effort. Additionally, some pollutants such as DDT are no longer manufactured and are slowly decreasing in concentration over time.

• Waters identified as impaired by pesticides showed a 36% increase from the prior list, likely a result of the more thorough monitoring required under the State’s Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. “Under this program, close collaboration between the Water Boards and the Department of Pesticide Regulation has resulted in reduced pesticide discharges to surface and groundwater,” said Mogharabi.

In 2010, California submitted to EPA for approval its list of polluted rivers, lakes and coastal waters. The federal EPA added several waterways to the list, including portions of the San Joaquin River, where increasing temperatures and salinity imperil salmon and trout populations. Following public comment, EPA today finalized the additions.

“Today’s action will lead to the development and adoption of hundreds of pollution clean-up plans by California to restore waters to swimmable, fishable and drinkable conditions,” the press release stated. “Work is already underway in California to address hundreds of waters previously listed as impaired. EPA will continue to work with the state to develop and implement additional TMDLs to address the remaining waters.”

However, the actions to date by the state regarding the MLPA Initiative, the Central Valley “permits to pollute” program and the campaign to build the peripheral canal appear to moving in the opposition direction of restoring waters “to swimmable, fishable and drinkable condition.” I hope that the release of the list is a wake up call to the public and the state and federal governments that California must aggressively enforce the federal and state Clean Water Acts and other laws combatting water pollution!

The Brown and Obama administrations are both pushing for the construction of a peripheral canal (”conveyance”) through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to increase water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to corporate agribusiness on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and southern California water agencies. A coalition of Delta residents, family farmers, Indian Tribes, grassroots conservationists and environmental justice advocates opposes the canal because it is expected to lead to the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, green sturgeon and other species.

The release of the list also follows the setting of two disturbing records on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta when the water year ended on September 30.

First, 9 million Sacramento splittail were “salvaged” at the state and federal Delta pumps near Tracy in 2011. The previous record salvage number for the splittail, a native minnow found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, was 5.5 million in 2006 (

Second, the water projects pumped a record 6.5 million acre-feet of water from the Delta in 2011, according to government data compiled by Spreck Rosecrans at Environmental Defense. The previous record was 6.3 million acre-feet in 2005.

It is clear that California has to get more serious about cleaning up its waterways by including pollution and other impacts other than just fishing and gathering in its strange concept of “marine protection” under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

At the same time, state officials have to abandon plans to divert more water from the Delta by constructing the peripheral canal to benefit agribusiness and southern California water agencies.

Finally, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board must aggressively enforce agricultural water pollution in the Central Valley rather than continuing to grant waivers under a voluntary program.

“Water is sacred, water is Life for all,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “Just as all need to breathe Air, so should be the waters be for all, not just those who market water and ruin the rest in poor planning.”

Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of four bills in the Human Right to Water package – Assembly Bill 983 by Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), AB 938 by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella), AB 1221 by Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) and SB 244 by Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) – is commendable. However, the administration has much more work to do if it really wants to clean up California’s waterways and groundwater supplies.

The supporting documents for EPA’s listing decision and a link to the list submitted by California are available at EPA’s web site:

For information on Total Maximum Daily Loads, please visit EPA’s web site:

For the full list of EPA’s added waters, maps, and more information, please visit EPA’s media center at:

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