Making Communities Whole From Water Quality Pollution Violations Through Community Restoration Funding

February 23rd, 2022

Fifty years ago, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act to clean up the nation’s rivers, lakes, and oceans, many of which were polluted to dangerous levels. Here in California, newly created State and Regional Water Boards were charged with implementing the Act. In addition to setting statewide water quality standards, developing policies, and issuing regulations, the Water Boards are also charged with enforcing water quality rules and penalizing violators.

Under current law, those who violate water quality rules (say, by discharging more of a chemical into a river than is allowed) have two options. The first option is to create a Supplemental Environmental Project to clean up the water in the community in which the violation occurred. Nearly all violators, however, choose the second option: paying a penalty into the State Water Board’s Cleanup & Abatement Account. They prefer this option because it allows them to write off their liability. Historically, the State Water Board has returned much of the money from the Cleanup & Abatement Account to the Regional Water Boards in order to clean up waterways in the communities most impacted by pollution.

Unfortunately, however, in recent years the State Water Board has sent an increasing share of Cleanup and Abatement Account monies to only a select few Regional Boards – leaving the majority of California communities, including many low-income communities of color, without the funding necessary to clean up polluted waters. Since water quality violators can simply send money to the State Water Board in lieu of cleaning up after themselves, but the Water Board no longer sends that money back to local communities at the same rate, many disadvantaged communities around the state have seen water quality issues persist or even worsen. Until these communities receive more funding from the Cleanup and Abatement Account, they will continue to lack the resources to clean up their local waterways. As a result, in California’s most underserved communities, drinking water costs more to treat, recreational and subsistence fishing opportunities are limited, and – in extreme cases – human health is harmed by dangerous concentrations of heavy metals or poisonous algae blooms in local rivers.

That is why California Coastkeeper Alliance teamed up with Assemblymembers Robert Rivas (Salinas) and Christina Garcia (Los Angeles, Downey) to introduce Assembly Bill 2113 in order to ensure pollution fines and penalties are sent back to the community originally harmed by the water quality violation.

AB 2113 will make several important changes to how money in the Cleanup and Abatement Account is spent, without increasing fines or fees. Specifically, this legislation will require that 65% of Cleanup and Abatement Account funding be sent back to the Regional Water Boards. The funding will then be used for: (1) cleaning up the most polluted waterways through restoration; (2) improving monitoring of water quality to ensure that remediation funding is spent where it can have the most impact; (3) developing community capacity so that residents in the most marginalized communities can participate in the regulatory and permitting processes; and (4) funding research through the Clean Water Innovation Account, which will help the Water Boards develop new and up-to-date pollution controls.

Together, these measures will ensure that the Water Boards use limited resources where they can have the most “bang for their buck:” cleaning up the most polluted waterways in the state’s underserved communities and moving California towards fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters for all Californians.

Categories: Happening Now, Legislation