Opposing Senate Bill AB 623 – Needs Further Refinement to Ensure Prevention of Further Water Pollution

CSPA joined with other environmental groups in submitting a letter opposing SB 623 unless the bill is significantly amended.   We strongly support the stated goals of SB 623 – The “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund Bill” –  to provide clean drinking water to communities in need and simultaneously working to reduce and eliminate water pollution. However, we have concerns with SB 623 since recent amendments create a regulatory framework that could perpetuate, rather than mitigate, practices that result in polluted ground and surface waters.

The bill would establish a new Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in the California state treasury to assist low-income communities and individual domestic water well users whose drinking water is contaminated at levels that exceed drinking water standards.

But after legal analysis, we believe the current language offers polluters a dangerously broad “safe harbor” from enforcement of water pollution laws by the State and Regional Water Quality Control Boards.  This would have the consequence of preventing the enforcement actions that are currently helping to provide safe, clean, and affordable interim drinking water to impacted communities and households.

Under the bill’s current language, the public has no idea how much money a farm operation must pay into the Fund in order to obtain broad enforcement immunity, or how much funding will be available from such sources to carry out the replacement water objectives.   Additionally, the recent amendments to SB 623 create a pay-to-pollute framework that allows agricultural polluters to continue polluting practices.  By exempting agricultural operations that pay an “applicable fee” and “enroll” under a Waste Discharge Requirement or waiver, the bill would effectively shield these operations from any realistic possibility of enforcement.

The Regional Water Boards and the courts have recently begun to hold agricultural dischargers accountable for their pollution and to require them to clean up the pollution they have caused. Stepping onto the slippery slope of an enforcement safe harbor and exempting these polluters from state water quality laws that apply to all other industries, in return for unspecified payments into a drinking water fund, sends the wrong message.  It undermines decades of ongoing work in courts and by advocacy organizations and water agency employees.  Shielding polluters from the tools that are finally working is antithetical to our shared goal of clean water.

More time, analysis, and discussion with experts and a broader set of stakeholders is needed.  The opposition letter requests that the bill be made a two-year bill in order to incorporate the specific language necessary to ensure safe and affordable drinking water for all Californians.

Here is the full text of the letter and the Press Release:

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