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May 07, 2012

WiLDCOAST asks state senate to oppose regional water board consolidation

planned move would result in less local oversight and representation of key regulatory agency
The consolidation could result delaying some of the San Diego region's key water quality initiatives, like the cleanup of the Tijuana River

SAN DIEGO, May 7, 2012— WiLDCOAST, San Diego Coastkeeper, and Environmental Health Coalition announced today their opposition to Governor Brown’s proposed plan to consolidate the Colorado River Basin and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Boards.

As they operate now, these regional boards protect and enforce water quality standards and regulate polluters throughout the state. The governor’s plan would create a single, 23,900-square-mile regulatory region out of two distinctly different water basins. It would also require the public to travel to board meetings at locations alternating in San Diego, Orange, Riverside and Imperial counties.

On April 25, the state senate’s Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation voted to continue reviewing the governor’s proposal to consolidate the regional boards. They are expected to take action at their May 9 meeting in Sacramento.

“This proposal would severely hinder public participation in meetings,” says Jill Witkowski, San Diego Coastkeeper’s Legal Clinic Director.  “It’s already challenging enough for the San Diego public to attend hearings in Kearny Mesa, with the lack of public transportation to the offices. The sheer size of the area that the combined regional board would cover would prevent interested people and groups from standing before the board members to have their concerns heard.”

San Diego’s regional board focuses on the needs of its mainly urban coastal communities such as sewage treatment, cleaning up toxic contamination in San Diego Bay, and improving stormwater regulations to reduce pollution in the ocean. The Colorado River’s regional water board focuses on addressing the issues of its rural desert communities such as regulating agricultural runoff and replacing septic tanks. 

“The governor’s plan would mean that San Diego’s clean water priorities, like addressing sewage spills onto our beaches or cleaning up the Tijuana River and San Diego Bay, will receive less of the board’s attention. This is unacceptable,” said WiLDCOAST Conservation Director Ben McCue. “It’s nearly impossible to select a single board to represent such diverse regions and communities.”

The proposal will also eliminate two regional water board seats, further limiting attention to San Diego’s key regional water quality concerns including cleanup and abatement, sewage treatment plant compliance, identification and restoration of polluted waters and municipal stormwater permitting. 

“The San Diego Regional Board just recently ordered polluters to cleanup the contamination in San Diego Bay. This is a significant achievement for the protection of San Diego Bay and will boost our region’s economy and health,” said Environmental Health Coalition’s Laura Hunter. “With a consolidated board, it is inevitable that there will be delays and inadequate attention given to these important regulatory decisions.”

According to the environmental groups, the move is also counter to the environmental justice guidelines of the state. The consolidation will make it increasingly difficult for environmental justice communities to participate in important issues before the board and would further limit public participation in water quality hearings. The commutes to meetings could exceed three hours for some stakeholders.

The environmental groups expressed their concerns in a letter written to Senator Joe Simitian, the Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation.


The San Diego Union-Tribune published an article on the proposed move

May 7, 2012

Mike Lee

Efforts to save money and improve efficiency in Sacramento threaten to diminish water pollution enforcement in San Diego, according to environmental groups and others.

They are lobbying the state Legislature to preserve the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has pushed for major pollution cleanups in San Diego Bay, the Tijuana River Valley and elsewhere.

A proposal under review in the state Senate would eliminate the regional board based in Palm Desert and shift its work to other offices, including the one in San Diego. Board officials said it would be the first such reduction of regional boards since nine were created more than 40 years ago by the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.

In addition, the Legislature is considering reducing the number of board members for each remaining regional agency from nine to seven, and giving the governor the ability to appoint the chairman rather than having the board elect its leader.

"Like so many of these cost-saving proposals, I am not sure that it washes," said Jack Minan, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a former regional board chairman in San Diego. "I think there would be a minimal cost savings (and) loss of local control."

The consolidation plan was advanced by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of a wider push to limit state expenses and boost efficiency, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance. He said in some cases, that will mean eliminating agencies, departments and commissions. Now, he said, it's up to legislators to see if they can agree on how to do that for the regional boards.

Environmentalists expect a Senate hearing on the issue on May 9 and they are campaigning against changes. They said the governor's plan would make the remaining regions too big and too dissimilar -- pollution problems in farm-rich Imperial Valley are dramatically different from they are the state's second-largest city. Some also worry that increasing the governor's influence will make the agencies too political.

Leaders of San Diego Coastkeeper, Wildcoast, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and other grups cosigned a letter to Senate budget officials Friday asking them to reject the strategy.

"(We are) very concerned that the weakening of local representation and oversight would mean less effective regulation of water quality standards and possible suspension of key water board efforts, like the cleanup of the Tijuana River and San Diego Bay," said Ben McCue, conservation director for Wildcoast.

At San Diego city's Storm Water Division - an agency that is regulated heavily by the regional board - spokesman Bill Harris said he also was concerned that the move would worsen conditions for an already overburdened board staff and make it less likely that local rules reflect local conditions. "Why would we expect more work would make it better?" he said.

Over the past decade, the San Diego board has been viewed by some as progressive for its role in regulating fireworks over waterways and by others as too aggressive for forcing costly cleanups of contaminated waterways. The board also has struggled to function at times, particularly when it hasn't had enough board members for a quorum.

Jimmy Smith, assistant executive officer at the San Diego board, declined to speculate about how the governor's proposal would impact his agency. "We don't really know at this point, especially given the uncertainty of who would remain as board members if the two regions were to consolidate," he said. "We have to wait and see."