California Water Board Faces Lawsuit Over New Wetlands Rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – With the Trump administration trudging ahead and re-writing another Obama-era environmental law, wary California regulators last month approved new protections for wetlands in the Golden State. The decision by the State Water Resources Control Board came after 11 years of debate between the board, cities, farmers and environmentalists over how to best define and protect the state’s nearly vanished wetlands streams from being paved into extinction.

Supporters said the move was a major step toward shielding California streams from Trump’s weakened Clean Water Act. Opponents argued that the rules will create new regulatory hurdles for farmers and businesses.

Hoping to freeze the new wetlands rules, a coalition consisting of several California water suppliers and the city of San Francisco sued the water board late Wednesday in state court. 

“By regulating previously unregulated wetland features as waters of the state…the procedures set new regulatory requirements that stand to impact farmers’ and ranchers’ agricultural activities by mandating compliance with new and costly water quality regulations,” the complaint filed by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority states.

The water board’s rules do two major things; Implement a statewide wetland definition and streamline guidelines for developers, farmers and cities trying to dredge or fill in water bodies. The state is largely looking to protect the wetlands regulations put into place by the Obama administration.

Even though California still lays claim to the largest estuary on the West Coast, nearly 90% of its historic wetlands have been pillaged by cities and farmers. Wetlands provide habitat for protected birds and fish and help improve water quality. 

Many conservationists said the rules didn’t go far enough to protect fragile fish habitats and ecosystems, but agreed that the state needed to act quickly with the pending Clean Water Act changes. Some called the water board’s move “Trump insurance.” 

“There was a lot of opposition from industry for even these relatively modest rules,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “We’re thrilled that the water board did the right thing for the public interest and the environment and unanimously adopted the wetland rules.”

Farming groups were initially against the proposal, but came on board after last-minute changes exempted practices like rice cultivation and other routine farming activities. 

The authority’s members include Central Valley water suppliers such as Modesto Irrigation District, South San Joaquin Irrigation District and both the city and county of San Francisco. The authority’s goal is to protect the longstanding water rights of its members, and thus lobby against decisions that could reduce their take to the rivers that make up the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

In the 18-page complaint filed in Sacramento Superior Court, the authority argues that the state overstepped its boundaries by trying to implement water quality standards for bodies that the federal government says should be open for development. It also says that the state’s Porter-Cologne Act does not mention dredge or fill material as waste, therefore the water board has no authority to mandate waste discharge requirements.

The authority’s lawyers at O’Laughlin & Paris of Sacramento didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail Wednesday evening. 

The authority wants the court to toss the rules, known as the State Wetland Definition and Procedures for Dischargers of Dredged or Fill Material to Waters of the State, and find that the water board violated state and federal water laws. It asks for attorneys’ fees but no special or punitive damages in the lawsuit.

While the water board didn’t return a media request Wednesday evening, it contends that the rules will go a long way in protecting wetlands, creeks and seasonal streams from future development.

“It’s critical we established this consistent statewide framework that protects and enhances our most sensitive water resources, while creating regulatory certainty for housing, agriculture, water managers, conservationists and communities,” said water board chair Joaquin Esquivel in April.

The new rules are still being completed and could go into effect next year.

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