The groups argue that only cleaner waters will enable the recovery of endangered salmon species.
For decades, water quality in North Coast river and streams has been degraded by sediment, nutrients, high temperatures, low dissolved oxygen levels, and turbidity. These pollutants are the result of dam construction, water diversions, urban development, agriculture, logging, mining, and grazing.
The declining river and stream conditions have impacted the survival of regional salmon species, including chinook salmon, coho salmon, and Northern California steelhead, which are now listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Last year, the collapse of salmon stocks on the west coast caused the first ever complete shutdown of the commercial salmon fishing season.
"Regional and state officials have failed to develop realistic, workable action plans that protect water quality and provide habitat for endangered salmon that need cool, clean water to survive," said George Torgun of the public interest law firm Earthjustice, who is representing the coalition in court.
"Without such plans, water quality in North Coast rivers and streams will not meet the standards that the state is obligated to achieve," he said.
"We need abundant populations of salmon for long-term economic stability and for our future generations of fishermen," said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishing industry trade association that is a co-plaintiff in the suit.
Endangered salmon spawning in a California stream (Photo courtesy California Nature Tours)
"Providing the conditions necessary for salmon to survive could bring back tens of thousands of fishing jobs and a billion dollar industry to our region," said Spain.
The action plans at issue are part of the Clean Water Act's Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL, program. A TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive in 24 hours and still meet water quality standards.
The program first requires the agencies to identify and maintain a list of impaired rivers and streams and submit that list to the U.S. EPA for approval.
The agencies must then assess the sources of pollution causing the violations, set TMDL limits for these sources, and develop action plans to achieve the standards.
In 1995, many of the same organizations involved in the current legal action, sued the EPA for failure to address water quality problems under the TMDL program. That case resulted in a consent decree requiring the federal agency to set pollution limits for 17 listed water bodies within the region by 2007.
EPA has completed most of the work required by the consent decree and TMDLs have been established for Garcia River, Scott River, and Shasta River.
But except for those three rivers, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the State Water Resources Control Board have failed to prepare action plans as required by the state Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act and the federal Clean Water Act.
In their complaint, the groups recognize that the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, has suffered from deep cuts in staffing and funding for clean water programs.
"While the Regional Board appears to be making some progress, they have lost 60 staff members since 2001, leaving the agency unable to protect our wild rivers," said Daniel Myers, representing Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter, one of the plaintiff groups.
"The ecological collapse in our rivers is bad not just for fish, but also for the thousands of people and local communities that depend on the health of these rivers," said Georgianna Wood of the plaintiff Northcoast Environmental Center. "These pollution problems may be complex, but the state and regional boards have the tools they need to act, and we urge them to do so."
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