Wet ambition

When it comes to ambition, few government programs measure up to Cal-Fed, which describes itself as “the long-term state/federal plan for providing water security to meet California’s growing needs, while at the same time restoring the California Bay Delta ecosystem from decades of environmental degradation.” Having dreamed the impossible dream a time or two ourselves, we’re down with that. Southern California gets its water and Northern California gets its wetlands back.

Heck, maybe we can have it all.

The thing is, Cal-Fed is one of those long, long, long-term government programs, with various stages to be phased in over the next 30 years. It all looks good on paper, and the multibillion-dollar program—assuming the 10 federal and six state agencies involved in the project can actually reach a consensus on anything—will undoubtedly benefit the Delta in the long run. But what about the pollutants that are being dumped into the watershed right now?

Well, there’s the federal Clean Water Act and the California Porter-Cologne Act, pesky environmental regulations that limit the amount of pollutants that can be discharged into California’s lakes, rivers, bays and estuaries. Only it turns out that enforcement of these regulations is lax, according to WaterKeepers, a national environmental watchdog organization with branches in the Delta and the Bay Area.

In fact, the nonprofit group says that the Davis administration’s plan for implementing toxic discharge standards released in April actually weakens existing Clean Water Act regulations. The group had pressed this point with the Davis administration during the draft stage, only to be ignored. With no other course of action, WaterKeepers filed suit to compel the State Water Resources Control Board to strengthen the pollution permit discharge requirements.

So-called citizen suits have been a means of last resort (and often the only means) for environmental groups for decades, but came under fire earlier this year in a five-part series published by the Sacramento Bee, “Environment, Inc.” The series suggested that many environmental groups file suits not out of concern for the environment, but for monetary gain—successful litigants are reimbursed for attorney fees and other court costs with taxpayer dollars.

By tarring all environmental organizations with the same brush, the Bee did a disservice to groups like the WaterKeepers. On a shoestring budget, the group’s local chapters, BayKeeper and DeltaKeeper, patrol thousands of miles of waterways and shoreline. WaterKeeper was instrumental in helping force three oil refinery giants— Tosco, Unocal and Exxon—to reduce discharges of toxic selenium in 1998. The resulting settlement—$3,875,000—was used to establish the San Francisco Bay Fund, which provides grants for environmental groups working to clean up the Bay.

We’re optimistic that Cal-Fed will live up to its ambitious agenda. Maybe, someday, we really will have it all. In the meantime, we’re grateful that groups like the WaterKeepers are out there, doing whatever they can to see that the laws already on the books are enforced.