Nearly fifty years since the passage of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) in 1972, widespread pollution of California’s surface and groundwater continues across the state. “Over half of California’s lakes, bays, wetlands, and estuaries are too polluted to swim, drink, or fish,” according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Poor and working-class communities suffer disproportionately from the negative externalities and environmental impacts of water pollution, including effects on human health and wellness.
With a focus on the CWA citizen suit provision, this paper examines how the legal and administrative processes for water pollution control have not effectively addressed the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards borne by California’s poor communities. Part I discusses the background and legal history of water pollution control in California. Part II considers that CWA citizen suits play an essential role in enabling plaintiffs to supplement government enforcement of water pollution and to challenge agency inaction. Lawyers representing environmental justice communities have successfully used the citizen suit provision to enjoin and penalize polluting activity in clients’ neighborhoods.
Part III focuses on two major limitations of CWA citizen suits: addressing agricultural pollution and seeking appropriate remedies. Agriculture is the primary source of California’s water pollution but its runoff is regulated by California law and cannot be challenged by federal citizen suit actions. Plaintiffs that do succeed against polluters are limited to injunctive and punitive relief and may be left without a meaningful acknowledgement of the affected community or a reasonable likelihood that the plaintiffs will attain clean water. Part IV recommends that a state-level citizen suit provision should be written into California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (“Porter-Cologne Act”) to allow plaintiffs to challenge agricultural runoff. This section also recommends that plaintiffs should be allowed to seek comprehensive remedies under federal and state law to ensure that judicial relief properly acknowledges, respects, and remedies environmental injustice suffered by the poor.
Kneitz, Paul, "Using Citizen Suits To Remedy Environmental Injustice and Achieve Clean Water in California" (2020). Poverty Law Conference & Symposium. 15.