Water Board Fails Forests

In April, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) requested a stay to prevent logging operations that may damage watersheds in Freshwater Creek and other northern California forests.
The request comes during a protracted legal battle between forest activists and regulators who, says EPIC, are failing to protect forest watersheds, as the Clean Water Act requires.
Currently, the Water Quality Control Board — the California agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act — does not require logging companies to file permits with the Board before proceeding with timber harvest plans. That pass is the result of a “waiver” that effectively exempts most logging operations from the Clean Water Act. Since the waiver was issued in 1987, says EPIC’s Cynthia Elkins, “more than 85% of our watersheds have been listed as impaired and all of our salmon listed as threatened. All of these problems happened under this waiver.”
“The Water Board,” continues Elkins, “cedes the authority [to regulate logging] to the California Department of Forestry, which has miserably failed to protect water quality.”
Senate Bill 390 was supposed to change all that. The bill, passed in October 1999, set a December 31, 2002 “sunset” date for the waivers. It gave California’s regional water boards an opportunity to re-establish authority to protect watersheds from pollution — whether from logging, as in the north coast, or agriculture in the central valley.
EPIC and EarthJustice urged the boards to adopt permit systems to regulate water quality. Up on the north coast, says Mike Lozeau of EarthJustice (which is representing EPIC), this would mean much-needed regulation of loggers. “The California Department of Forestry hasn’t listened to the regional board. So rather than having to tag along and be ignored, the Water Board should have permits in place that require loggers to meet standards, and establish effluent standards that are enforceable.”
When the sunset date arrived, some boards, like the Central Coast Regional Board, opted for tighter control. But up on the north coast, where massive logging operations have left many watersheds on the verge of collapse, Board officials extended the waiver, leaving forestry officials in charge of water quality for one more year.
“The Water Quality Control Board clearly has the authority to prohibit activity that would further degrade our waterways,” says Alan Cook of the Freshwater Working Group, “but they won’t do it.”
EPIC and Humboldt Watershed Council have filed a lawsuit against the North Coast Board for failing to protect the region’s watersheds from destructive logging practices. EPIC is also pursuing legal action against the Central Valley Board, which adopted a similarly lax policy.
The motion for a stay would protect watersheds on the north coast as EPIC’S petition makes its way to court. EPIC has requested a court date of May 5th to have the motion heard.
“Exempting logging operations, an activity that we know is causing tremendous damage, from the regulations of the Clean Water Act just doesn’t make sense,” said Elkins.

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