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California and the West

Under Davis, State Water Officials Are Cracking Down on Polluters

Regulation: Unprecedented fines and orders to halt runoff show the governor's more aggressive use of federal law, environmentalists say.

September 04, 2000|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long considered ineffective, state water officials are taking the toughest stand against polluters in recent memory.

The crackdown includes unprecedented fines for sewage spills, with cities ordered to stop sending urban runoff into waterways, and limits set on pollutants entering tainted water bodies.

Environmentalists say that, after a stagnant period during the administration of Republican Pete Wilson, officials under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis are using far more of the tools provided by federal law to keep California's waters clean.

More money has been allocated, and more enforcement personnel hired. In addition, mounting public concern about contaminated waters and urban runoff has forced the regional water quality boards, which are state entities, to become more active.

"We are definitely seeing in the last year some very notable and meaningful actions" by the state's water boards, said Alexis Strauss, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional water division director in San Francisco. "They are really taking on a vigorous role that has been [lacking] in prior years."

In the 1992-93 fiscal year, there were 142 enforcement actions statewide, including 51 fines. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, which ended June 30, there were 250 enforcement actions, including 113 fines. The boards are also issuing cleanup and abatement orders for urban runoff.

A 1998 study by Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based organization, found that there had been at least 9,000 violations of water quality laws in the Los Angeles region between 1992 and 1997, including 2,194 spills that released 24.8 million gallons of sewage, 3.3 million gallons of oil and 240,000 gallons of chemicals. More than 99.5% of these violations did not result in penalties.

But "right now, the boards have improved dramatically, and I think it's important to give credit where credit is due," said Mark Gold, director of Heal the Bay.

Many say the stepped-up enforcement is the result of the election of Davis, who has increased the budgets of regional water boards 38% since he took office.

Last summer, he added $3.5 million to the budget to hire 35 more staff members. This year, the budget included almost $5 million to retain the new hires and add 14 positions.

"The governor has indicated that clean water and . . . making sure the state has clean waterways is an important priority," said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Resources Agency. "We are taking enforcement seriously."

Strauss of the EPA added that increased public attention to beach closings and pollution has helped spur action.

"Beach closures [are] something none of us want to see continue. We need to deal with the root causes of the problem if we are ever going to turn the corner," she said.

The regional boards have also begun to set limits on pollutants that are allowed to enter dirty waterways, a requirement of the Clean Water Act that was ignored for decades. Faced with more than 45 lawsuits nationally, the EPA began requiring states to enforce the forgotten provision, said David Smith, a team leader for the EPA's regional office in San Francisco.

Despite the improvements, everyone agrees that there is a long way to go.

The state's nine regional water boards, charged with enforcing the federal Clean Water Act, have long been underfunded and understaffed, officials say. The San Diego region, which had about 40 staffers during the Wilson administration, now has about 60, said Art Coe, assistant executive officer. Ideally, it needs twice that many, he said.

In Los Angeles, the situation had become so dire that the Natural Resources Defense Council in February filed a petition asking the EPA to take over for the regional board because it was failing to uphold the Clean Water Act. The EPA has yet to act, but a decision on whether to conduct a formal hearing is expected before year's end.

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