6000 J Street Sacramento
Theresa “Tess” Dunham
Managing Shareholder, Somach Simmons & Dunn
The Porter Cologne Water Quality Control Act was adopted in 1969 and is the state’s primary authority for addressing water quality issues in both surface waters and groundwater. Since then, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) and the regional water quality control boards (regional water boards) have adopted permits and various policies to protect groundwater. However, despite these efforts, groundwater quality in many parts of California has declined due to industrial, agricultural, and municipal discharges of pollutants that are associated with human habitation. The two most pervasive pollutants of are salt and nitrate. Left unchecked, rising salt and nitrate levels in California’s groundwater basins will impact our ability to safely use groundwater for drinking, and will impede agricultural production. In response, some regional water boards have spent decades developing and implementing comprehensive salt and nitrate management plans through existing authority under Porter Cologne.
Then enters the State Water Board’s Recycled Water Policy. Just as water short California looked to increase water availability in part through water recycling, treatment of municipal wastewater increased for a variety of reasons. Municipal wastewater agencies, and others, quickly recognized the value of highly treated effluent as a water resource. However, with recycled water comes salt and nitrate. To encourage recycled water use, make permitting of such projects more efficient, protect public health, and address salt and nitrate that comes with recycled water, the State Water Board adopted the Recycled Water Policy. The policy was first adopted in 2009, amended in 2013, and was then amended again in 2018. A key component in the Recycled Water Policy are requirements for the management of salts and nutrients through the development of comprehensive salt and nutrient management plans. While some regional boards were well ahead of these requirements, others are still working to comply with such requirements.
In 2014, the California legislature adopted and Governor Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). While the primary focus of SGMA is to address our dwindling groundwater supplies, it includes a requirement that pertains directly to groundwater quality and groundwater sustainability agencies must consider water quality standards when setting minimum thresholds. Thus, the groundwater sustainability plans that are in development must, at least in part, address groundwater quality impacts.
In light of these multiple (but sometimes disparate) efforts to address salt and nitrate levels in groundwater, many questions are rising to the surface as to how regional water boards, dischargers and groundwater sustainability agencies are to work together to each meet their legal mandates and, more importantly, how to improve and protect groundwater quality. In this lecture series, Tess will explore the different legal and regulatory mandates and the creative solutions that are stakeholders are developing to address these complex issues. She will also identify the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing each leg of the stool, and how all three are essential to improving and protecting California’s groundwater resources.