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Group Sues California County Agency Over Polluted Runoff

(Beyond Pesticides, November 3, 2010) A lawsuit by an environmental group, the Monterey Coastkeeper, argues that the Monterey County Water Resources Agency is illegally allowing polluted irrigation water to flow into the Salinas River and Elkhorn Slough. The suit charges that the contaminated water violates public health standards and poses a threat to humans, fish and wildlife. This lawsuit seeks to set a statewide precedent in making a county agency responsible for water distributed to farmers.

The Monterey Coastkeeper, a program of The Otter Project, a nonprofit organization, filed suit against the county last week in Monterey County Superior Court. It is the first lawsuit to take action against a county agency in an attempt to enforce state water standards. Monterey Coastkeeper identifies the agency as a water distributor that provides water to farmers by channeling it from the reservoirs to the northern end of the river and into groundwater resources tapped for agricultural irrigation. The irrigation water, contaminated with pesticides, nitrates and sediments, runs off into the agency-operated Reclamation Ditch and Boronda Drain, and ultimately into the Salinas River, sloughs and the ocean. Without the agency’s efforts, the suit alleges, the farmers would be unable to irrigate their fields at current levels over the long term. An agricultural waiver protects owners and operators of irrigated cropland from prosecution for releasing toxic water. The suit states that this waiver does not apply to the county agency.

“The agency is facilitating taking clean water, turning it into dirty water and then releasing it, untreated,” said Deborah Sivas of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford, lead lawyer for the plaintiff. “We think they need to be held accountable to the state water quality standards. Obviously, we’re not going to stop fertilizer and pesticide use, but I think there are ways we can be more conservative about it.”

The suit, citing reports by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, says Salinas Valley has the highest percentage of tested surface water sites with toxic levels of pyrethroid pesticides and the highest application rate of these pesticides. In areas of the Salinas Valley, half of the sampled wells had nitrate concentrations above drinking water standards, according to regional water board reports. “Much of this contamination is from agricultural runoff,” said David Clegern, public information officer for the State Water Resources Control Board.

Pyrethroids, among the most widely-used home pesticides, are winding up in California rivers at levels toxic to some stream-dwellers, endangering the food supply of fish and other aquatic animals. A University of California, Berkeley, and Southern Illinois University study documents toxic levels of pyrethroids in the water column as well as in the sediments at the bottom of streams. The pyrethroid levels are around 10-20 parts per trillion, high enough to kill test organisms used to assess water safety. Another study found that runoff from rainfall and watering lawns and gardens ends up in municipal storm drains and washes fertilizers, pesticides and other contaminants into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. In this study, organophosphates and pyrethroid pesticides were found in all water samples taken over a two year period on a weekly, bi-weekly and monthly basis. In addition, a study published in 2008 found pyrethroid contamination in 100 percent of urban streams sampled.

Recent U.S. Geological Survey data have found that California and other U.S. waterways are contaminated with toxic substances including fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other industrial chemicals. Chemicals, even those detected at low-levels, are increasingly being linked to serious health and developmental effects, well below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards and levels of concern.

“We don’t want any money, we just want the pollution to stop,” said Steve Shimek, Monterey Coastkeeper’s program manager and former executive director of The Otter Project. Mr. Shimek said the water could be treated, perhaps with an artificially created wetland; farmers could manage fertilizers and pesticides more carefully; or, the agency could stop discharging.

Read Beyond Pesticides’ “Threatened Waters” for more information on drinking water and contaminants found in drinking water. The Pesticide Induced Disease Database provides more information on the link between chemical exposure and diseases.

Source: Monterey Herald


One Response to “Group Sues California County Agency Over Polluted Runoff”

  1. 1
    Steve Shimek Says:

    Hi everyone!
    The complaint, our press release, our public records act request for well water data, and Monterey County Water Resouces Agency response to our PRA request are all available on our website, http://www.montereycoastkeeper.org (that takes you to The Otter Project, our ‘home’ org).

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