The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty and tested the resolve of people, businesses, and governments around the world. The holds true in California, which faces a $54.3 billion budget deficit due to losses in tax revenue and increases in COVID-19 related spending.
Despite this historic state deficit, and following sweeping announcements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it is suspending enforcement of environmental protection laws during the COVID-19 crisis, the State Water Board rejected requests for industry exemptions and reaffirmed its commitment that all households – and the environment – have access to clean, healthy water.
Today, the State Water Board will consider an increase in annual water quality permit fees to meet the agency’s budget needs. As common practice, the State Water Board raises fees in order meet its budget change proposal for the coming year, but is facing significant pressure not to raise fees due to COVID-19. If fees are not increased this year, the Water Boards will face an estimated $9.64 million shortfall for its water quality programs, 42 positions will remain unfilled this coming year, and dischargers will face a steeper fee increase in FY 2021-2022.
The Water Boards are already facing a historic staffing short-fall due to the pandemic – for a variety of reasons ranging from furloughs, COVID-19 tracing, and retirements – and further staffing vacancies will only inhibit the Water Boards’ ability to serve their critical functions and keep up with the full range of demands and threats on our state’s water quality. Already, enforcement across the Water Boards is lacking with only 11 stormwater penalties assessed between July 2018 and June 2019, while over half of California’s waterways are too polluted to drink, swim, or fish.
California has some of the toughest water quality laws in the nation. But without sufficient staff to support and enforce these laws, these laws are only words on a page. Suspending or failing to act on regulatory requirements will disrupt California’s commitment and significant work it has undertaken to secure safe, affordable water for every Californian, restore its groundwater aquifers, and ensure that its rivers, bays, and estuaries are safe to drink, fish, and swim. Leaving gaps in Water Board staffing will give polluters a pass – placing the health of communities & ecosystems further at risk – and is not the solution we need during the pandemic.
CCKA and its local Waterkeepers work year-round to protect our drinking water and the rivers, beaches, and ocean we love – and we need the State and Regional Water Boards to do the same.