By Deb Murphy
Amid all the news stories rolling out of Washington this month, proposed rollbacks to the Clean Water Act protections haven’t made it on the nightly news casts.
But, Evan Halper ran a story in the Los Angeles Times in mid-December that sent us scrambling for more information.
Here’s the deal: former President Barack Obama expanded the definition of protected waterways in 2015. While the additional protections have been mired in courts in some states, they’re in effect in California.
The Eastern Sierra is a perfect environment to explain the 2015 additions including wetlands and seasonal streams that flow into protected waterways. The rationale: the quality of, let’s say, water in the Owens River is dependent on the quality of the water flowing out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The Environmental Protection Agency rollbacks would remove protections for those wetlands and seasonal streams. According to Halper’s article, that impacts 80-percent of California waters.
The beauty of the American system is the simple fact the feds can set the bar wherever they want and states can maintain that bar or set it higher. California set it higher with the 1969 Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. Doug Smith, assistant executive officer for the Lahontan Water Quality Control District confirmed that. California regulations stay in place, regardless.
One remaining issue, can states with higher protections apply those protections or afford to enforce them on water flowing out of federal lands—like the Eastern Sierra’s layers of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service holdings?
According to the California Water Resources Control Board Public Information Officer Tim Moran, the WRCB is working on it. His exact quote: Because federal requirements have been expansive, though, the need to use the (state) general permit has been somewhat limited. The State Water Board has been working on updating rules to provide greater clarity and consistency to these protections. At this point, the board anticipates completing that process next year.”
On the issue of California enforcing its stiffer water quality regulations on federal lands, Moran came back with an understated statement from the WRCB’s chief counsel: “California and the federal government have a disagreement as to the extent to which state law restrictions will apply within federal lands.”
In other words, stay tuned.