Bay Crossings Article

2010 California Legislative Spotlight: Water Quality

Deb Self, Baykeeper and Executive Director
From the November 2010 edition of Bay Crossings

Of the 1024 bills that reached the Governor’s desk this year, 726 were signed into law.  Only a handful of these new laws are related to the environment, and except for one of these, all are procedural – that is, they set up new bureaucratic procedures, place caps on fines, require new vision statements, or slightly revise existing guidelines.  Only one bill, SB 346 (Kehoe, D-San Diego), directly addresses a water quality pollutant and authorizes new steps to reduce the source of contamination.  SB 346 restricts automakers from using copper in brake pads.  Brake pad copper has been a significant source of pollution to the state’s waterways for many years, and studies have found that about a third of the copper pollution in the San Francisco Bay watershed can be attributed to copper brake pad emissions.  Currently, when people brake their cars, a fine copper dust is emitted, which settles on highways and driveways only to be washed into the nearest storm drain when it rains.  Copper pollution at low levels is known to interfere with sense of smell in salmon, thwarting their ability to escape from predators.  Copper also is toxic to plankton, the base of the food chain for most aquatic life.  The new bill, similar to a law passed in Washington earlier this year, requires carmakers to reduce copper in brake pads to just 0.5 percent by the year 2025.  While that’s a long time from now, the requirement is a big step toward improving water quality in our state.  The copper restriction bill is the only bright spot in terms of water quality achievements this legislative season, however. 

The Governor unfortunately vetoed many other important water quality bills, including a bill that would have improved water quality and our children’s health.  SB 1157 (DeSaulnier, D-Concord) required all California schools to adopt safer pesticide-use policies.  These new integrated pest management (IPM) programs would have restricted the use of high-risk pesticides in all California public schools. The most recent pesticide-use lists from thirteen California School Districts, a majority of them in Contra Costa County, show that many public schools in the Bay Area are using more than 72 different high-risk pesticides.  Toxic pesticide runoff is fatal to the fish and wildlife in our vast watershed, and has been linked to multiple human health problems including asthma, cancer and lymphoma.  In many instances the application of these harmful chemicals is unnecessary because less toxic alternatives exist.  The Governor cited funding concerns as his reason to veto the bill, despite evidence of similar programs in other states demonstrating that school systems save money when they use fewer chemicals.

There were also several critical bills that didn’t make it out of the legislature and onto the Governor’s desk.  Two important water quality bills that got stuck in Congress included SB 797 (Pavley, D-Santa Monica) and AB 1998 (Brownley, D-Santa Monica and Leno, D-San Rafael).  SB 797 would have banned the use of the harmful chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in infant/children’s food and drink containers.  BPA is linked to harmful human health impacts including prostate cancer, breast cancer, miscarriage, and obesity.  BPA also reaches our waterways and sediment at levels that cause concern.  This toxic compound can cause reproductive and developmental harm in fish, amphibians, and reptiles.  The chemical is persistent in the environment, and is already widely found in areas receiving municipal wastewater.  Similarly, AB 1998 would have diminished the use of single-use plastic carryout bags by prohibiting grocery stores and convenience stores from offering them to customers for free after 2012.  The bill had widespread support from environmental, business and community groups because plastic bags are a primary source of trash pollution in our state, and pose a distinct threat to aquatic wildlife and birds by causing suffocation and starvation.  Active opposition to the bill came primarily from the American Chemistry Council, a group made up of petroleum and plastic product lobbyists that reportedly provided campaign contributions to a number of elected officials who eventually killed the bill. 

The lesson we can learn from this year’s legislative shortfalls is that our legislators need to hear from more of us that we want them to better protect our state’s most precious resources.  The next time you receive an email alert from your favorite nonprofit organization asking you to contact your legislator about an important bill, please take a moment to let your elected officials know that protecting our watershed is important to you and your family.  Another easy step is to support Baykeeper’s efforts in tracking and advocating for the smartest legislation to protect the health of our watershed by visiting us at