Bay Crossings Article

A Chance for Change: What a New Administration’s Water Policies Could Mean for the Bay and Beyond

By 
Sejal Choksi
From the February 2009 edition of Bay Crossings

San Francisco Baykeeper has worked for almost two decades to protect the San Francisco Bay from pollution. Over the years, we’ve achieved a number of victories that have helped improve water quality not only locally but at the state and national level as well – in fact, last month we secured an important court ruling that requires the federal regulation of pesticide spraying in waterways across the country. Unfortunately, though, we’ve also encountered rules passed down from the federal level that undermine existing environmental laws and result in underfunded federal environmental programs. During the last eight years of the Bush Administration, we’ve witnessed a disregard for sound environmental policy that’s allowed thousands of miles of our country’s vital waterways to be degraded and polluted.

Many of these federal missteps have significantly degraded the water quality of the San Francisco Bay. A number of San Francisco Baykeeper’s recent legal actions have been targeted to fight federal rollbacks of environmental protections. Our recent legal victory to control pesticides in waterways was originally filed because in 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency redefined the word “pollutant” in its regulations to exempt pesticides sprayed into waterways from regulation under the Clean Water Act. This type of unraveling of environmental protections also prompted Baykeeper to file lawsuits to stop factory farms from freely dumping toxic animal waste into waterways and to prevent international ships from being allowed to release harmful invasive species into U.S. waters.

This year, however, a new administration takes office, and with it comes the opportunity for better environmental policies for the U.S., for California and for the Bay. San Francisco Baykeeper works as part of a unique international network of clean water advocates, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and with the help of over 180 grassroots Waterkeeper groups just like us, the Alliance created A Blueprint for Clean Water [download a copy here]. This document is a roadmap for the new administration to strengthen environmental protection and enforcement for our nation’s vital waterways. A Blueprint for Clean Water calls for aggressive national action to remedy the last eight years of environmental degradation and to address major systemic issues facing our nation’s waterways.

Many of the issues highlighted by A Blueprint for Clean Water matter a lot here in the Bay Area. Number one: sewage. San Francisco Baykeeper has worked for almost ten years to reduce sewage spills and overflows to the Bay, and we’ve secured some important improvements in cities with high rates of sewage spills. But we’re fighting an uphill battle against a crumbling sewage infrastructure with hundred-year-old pipes that are inadequate to the eight-million-strong population of the Bay Area. Unless we address significant wastewater infrastructure issues, we’re going to face a big sewage problem in coming years – and the same is true for most metropolitan areas across the country.

Similarly, the Blueprint tackles the issue of polluted stormwater runoff. This is the largest source of water pollution to the Bay and to most waterbodies in urban areas, and with the assistance of San Francisco Baykeeper, the Bay Area is beginning to make changes to the way we deal with oil, chemicals and trash being carried from our streets and yards into local waterways. San Francisco Baykeeper is also on the front lines of ending local power plants’ use of technology that kills fish and of regulating toxic pesticide applications by industrial agriculture. But as the Blueprint describes, all too often, state and federal regulations have failed to enact and enforce truly strong environmental policies, or new federal rules have contradicted victories at the state and local level.

With leadership at the national level dedicated to preserving and protecting our nation’s waterways from pollution, San Francisco Baykeeper and Waterkeepers across the country will be better able to restore the health of our nation’s waters. The Obama Administration is poised to lead America in this critical area with leaders such as former San Francisco Baykeeper Board Member Nancy Sutley, who was appointed Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, one of the President’s chief advisors on environmental matters. President Obama’s environmental team is charged with strengthening federal environmental regulations, enacting new legislation to confront environmental challenges, investing in environmental protection programs and reinvigorating environmental stewardship as a characteristic of the American way of life.

We’re hopeful that the new administration will demonstrate a strong commitment to better water policies for the nation. We’ll continue working with the Waterkeeper Alliance and with all Waterkeepers to ensure that the goals of A Blueprint for Clean Water are kept at the forefront of the national debate on protecting our natural resources. And, as always, San Francisco Baykeeper will continue our longstanding fight against all types of pollution in the waters of San Francisco Bay.

For more information about our work to protect the San Francisco Bay from pollution or to download a copy of the Waterkeeper Alliance Blueprint for Clean Water, please visit us at www.baykeeper.org.