Asm. Rivas, Sen. Hertzberg Introduce CA Clean Water Act to Clean Up All Waterways by 2050

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Approaching the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, roughly 95% of all California waterways remain impaired

SACRAMENTO – On Tuesday, Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and California Coastkeeper Alliance introduced the California Clean Water Act, Assembly Bill 377, legislation that will put California back on track to eliminate impaired waterways and make all waters statewide suitable for conversion to drinking water, swimming, and fishing by 2050.

“Roughly 19 out of 20 waterways in California are polluted or ‘impaired,’” Asm. Rivas said. “Clearly, we need to do more to protect the health of Californians, communities and the environment. And, as with so many of our other environmental challenges, it’s our low-income communities and our communities of color who are hit the hardest by this issue. Access to clean water is a basic human right, and I am proud to introduce legislation that will give teeth to the original Clean Water Act and create a healthier environment for the entire State.”

Specifically, the California Clean Water Act will require the State and Regional Water Boards to close permit loopholes, ensure that all dischargers are in compliance with water quality standards, and direct a larger proportion of existing funding toward cleaning up impaired waterways.  The effects of this bill will be especially significant in disadvantaged communities, where water is disproportionately likely to be polluted or even toxic. 

“California made history in 2012 when it became the first U.S. state to declare that clean drinking water is a human right. Yet, nearly a decade later, some communities still struggle for access to clean water – this is unacceptable,” said Senator Hertzberg. “I have worked for decades to end the state’s drinking water crisis, and I am proud to continue that effort with Assemblymember Rivas on AB 377.”

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which set a goal of restoring and maintaining clean water in all of the nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands, and other waterways by 1985.  Five decades later, the vast majority of waterways in California and across the nation are still polluted or “impaired” by discharges of chemicals, sediment, or other materials into those waterways.  These discharges can range from a chemical company pouring waste into a nearby swimming hole, to a logging project clogging up a stream with sediment runoff, to untreated urban storm water carrying bacteria, toxic metals, and trash onto the beach. 

“California is 36 years past its Clean Water Act deadline to provide swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters for all Californians,” said Sean Bothwell, Executive Director for California Coastkeeper Alliance. “It’s time for California to once again lead the nation on this critical issue, so that every kid can swim safely in their favorite swimming hole, every tribe can continue their cultural fishing practices, and every farming community has access to drinkable water.”

Fifty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, roughly 95% of all waterways in California remain impaired, including 82% of rivers and streams, 93% of lakes and ponds, 99% of wetlands, and 99% of bays and estuaries. 

Technical Aspects

AB 377, the California Clean Water Act, will change the way the State and Regional Water Boards enforce compliance with water quality standards and ensure that waterways are taken off the impaired list over time by: 

  • Eliminating loopholes.  Currently, many discharge permits direct the permittee to comply with water quality standards but allow for exploitation of a number of loopholes.  (A permit holder may never have to provide any evidence that they’re actually complying with water quality standards, for example.)  AB 377 will not change the terms of existing permits, but will ensure that as new or renewed permits are issued, loopholes are eliminated and permittees are brought into compliance with water quality standards. 
  • Changing Water Board enforcement procedures, requiring them to spend more time and effort enforcing against the worst polluters instead of ignoring violations. 
  • Directing a larger portion of existing Water Board financial resources toward cleaning up impaired waterways, without imposing any new fees or costs.