On Monday, the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality agreed with Senator Blakeslee that a more science-based, collaborative approach is needed to reform to how the state and regional water quality control boards promulgate regulations. The bill, SB 1306, received bipartisan support, passing the committee 5-1.

“Maintaining a healthy environment and creating economically sound regulations are not mutually exclusive goals,” said Senator Blakeslee.  “Water quality guidelines should be based on rigorous science and well vetted with the stakeholder community to ensure they will actually achieve the intended outcome and maximize compliance.”

Existing law requires each agency, department, and board within Cal/EPA to conduct an external scientific peer review of the scientific basis for any rule proposed for adoption.  The State Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards are currently subject to this provision and do conduct peer reviews for certain regulatory programs.  SB 1306 simply clarifies that the State Water Board shall conduct an external peer review for proposed storm water discharge permit requirements and that the regional boards shall conduct an external peer review for proposed Agricultural Orders.

In the early 1990’s there was a bi-partisan concern about the quality and consistency of the science underpinning major environmental protection regulations.  Spearheaded by one of the state’s great environmental champions, Byron Sher, and one of the most respected Governors, Pete Wilson, the state implemented a number of reforms to the regulatory process.

One of the more significant reforms from this time was the requirement for an external peer review of all proposed regulations by a Cal/EPA board, department, or office prior to adoption.  SB 1320 (Sher, 1997) included the peer review provision, which was recommended by a report commissioned by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in response to Governor Wilson’s Executive Order W-137-96.

In 1998 following the passage of SB 1320, Cal/EPA issued a Policy and Guiding Principles For External Scientific Peer Review.  In providing guidance, the document specified actions that require an external peer review – such as “products that address emerging or controversial issues, have significant cross-media implications, or establish a significant precedent.”

While issuance of an individual permit or variance to a specific individual arguably does not require an external scientific peer review, the adoption of general permit requirements that apply across a broad sector arguably do, especially if the proposed general requirements “address emerging or controversial issues, have significant cross-media implications, or establish a significant precedent.”

The proposed Updated Agricultural Order adopted by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on March 15, 2012, clearly qualified as both controversial and establishing a significant precedent; yet, the Order did not benefit from an external peer review.  Additionally, the various (commercial, industrial, municipal) storm water permit discharge requirements have raised concerns amongst a broad array of stakeholders including school districts, universities, cities, counties, port authorities, branches of the military, electric utilities, natural gas utilities, grocery stores, restaurants, retail stores, general contractors, engineering firms, architecture firms, landscape services, realtors, business property owners, aerospace, biotech, manufacturers, forestry, trucking, and others.

“This bill recognizes that water quality is most likely to be effectively achieved when objectives and programs are developed collaboratively with stakeholders,” said Blakeslee. “Stakeholders who are treated as partners in protecting water quality are more likely to support and participate in regulatory programs.”