ELC students take on the state to protect one million Californians from unsafe drinking water

Water quality in California is bad and getting worse. Upwards of one million Californians statewide – many of them are from low-income and Latinx communities – are drinking unsafe water from polluted wells. Studies show that high levels of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water are related to increased rates of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and pregnancy complications. Pesticide pollution also severely impairs aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity throughout the State. To help address this humanitarian and environmental crisis, four students from the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic have been working to compel the State Water Resources Control Board (“State Board”) to comply with its legal duties to protect water quality.

To that end, the students recently presented at a State Board meeting about a State Board Order regulating agricultural discharges in the East San Joaquin region of the Central Valley. The Clinic’s presentation called for more stringent regulations of nitrate and pesticide pollution from farms throughout the East San Joaquin region.

ELC Students Take on the State to Protect one Million Californians from Unsafe Drinking Water 1
(From left) Rob Underwood (JD ’19), Donna Ni (JD/MS ’19), Sarah Rowan (JD/MS ’19), and Michael Abrams (JD ’19) testify at the State Board meeting at California EPA Building on February 7, 2018.

Historically, farms have been subject to minimal regulation due to the complexity of regulating nonpoint source pollution and the economic significance of California’s agricultural industry. The Order discussed at the hearing represented five years of work by regulators, scientists, and stakeholders to create regulations that balance the interests of agribusiness with the protections necessary to ensure the health of California’s people and natural environment. Yet the Order, adopted at the end of the hearing, lacks critical safeguards and left the Clinic’s students with a sense of disillusionment regarding the administrative process. The Order provides no standards limiting nitrate and pesticide pollution and permits growers to conceal the amount of nitrates and pesticides they apply. This will frustrate monitoring and enforcement efforts by the State and Regional Boards.

The results of the hearing, while somewhat expected given previous drafts of the Order, were demoralizing. Students saw representatives from community advocacy groups give presentations which were heart-rending, passionate, and thorough in their factual and scientific evaluations of why the Order will not protect water quality for Californians. But these compelling presentations were no match for the political power of the agricultural industry, and the Board adopted the Order after making a few minor edits that only tinkered at the margins of the Order. Despite this setback, we left the hearing further emboldened to bring the fundamental interests of all Californians to the fore.

In that vein, the Clinic is also engaged in litigation against the State Board due to the State Board’s decades-long, systematic “pattern and practice” of failing to protect California’s waters. The Clinic’s complaint alleges that the State Board is not complying with its legal duties under the public trust doctrine, the reasonable use doctrine, the human right to water, and the Porter-Cologne Act, among others.

ELC Students Take on the State to Protect one Million Californians from Unsafe Drinking Water
Stanford students pose with their client, Steve Shimek (center), of Monterey Coastkeeper/The Otter Project at the Demurrer Hearing in Sacramento Superior Court, February 23, 2018. Elliot Higgins (JD ’18), not pictured, helped brief the case.

Clinic students Sarah Rowan and Michael Abrams appeared in Sacramento Superior Court last week to respond to the State Board’s motion to dismiss the case. In spite of the students’ emphasis that a million people are relying on water from aquifers that do not meet drinking water standards, the Judge was concerned that any relief he could grant would be too broad. Judge Arguelles sustained the State Board’s motion to dismiss, but granted the Clinic leave to amend its complaint so the case may proceed. The Clinic is now moving forward with discovery and is amending the complaint. Water is the lifeblood of California, and the Clinic is prepared to take all steps necessary to protect it.