California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on Monday that, along with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and New York Attorney General Letitia James, he sent a comment letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking for a repeal of state-limiting authority under the Clean Water Act.
Specifically, he wants state restrictions to end under Section 401 of the Act that would give states more control over what they can do to “prevent, reduce, and eliminate pollution” of water within their state. Currently, the Section requires federal approval for water discharge permission.
In a May letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonta argued that the revisions to Section 401 forced states to clear projects with the federal government and had an impact on nationwide permits, such as the Corps not including state water certifications or simply aligning by the nationwide permits.
“As a result,” said Bonta’s office in a press release on Monday, “many states, including California, will be forced to evaluate projects covered by Nationwide Permits individually, and issue state certifications on a project-by-project basis and adopt individual water quality certifications for dischargers at significant cost to the states and their taxpayers.”
Bonta says that a return to state control would help protect the state from worse drought conditions and that the Section changes, added during the Trump administration, are unlawful.
“As drought conditions across the West grow increasingly dire, Californians are relying on state agencies to take necessary steps to address this unprecedented emergency,” noted Attorney General Bonta. “Unfortunately, every day this unlawful Trump-era rule remains in effect puts our ability to safeguard this precious resource in further jeopardy. I urge the EPA to take swift action to restore California’s ability to protect its waters, which sustain the health and livelihoods of our communities.”
However, critics pointed out that greater state control could lead to even more major water releases, as evidenced by the state releasing 50% of stored water in reservoirs for solely environmental use that drained water directly into the ocean rather than go towards urban or agricultural uses.
“I’m not a Trump fan at all, but policies made under his administration really helped farmers here,” explained agricultural hydrologist Rachel Mueller to the Globe on Monday. “When he signed that new law early last year, he made agriculture the priority, cut back on water going to environmental uses, and still put in water for cities. He wasn’t doing the endangered fish any favors, but it also wasn’t killing them. And reservoir levels stabilized. It was by no means perfect, and it looked like bad news for the fish, but things were projected to stabilize.
“The state just stopped doing the right thing, leading reservoir levels to drop even more, and entire farms to die. But he did protect a few fish, so I’m sure all the farmers facing bankruptcy and dust-bowl like conditions forming on their land completely understand.”
Any changes to the Clean Water Act will likely be announced in the near future.
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