Close to Home: Next governor must make clean water a priority

In the North Bay and across California, our health and economy depend on reliable supplies of clean water - water we need for everyday drinking and to support our farms and fish. Water also is the bedrock of an outdoor recreation industry that employs more than 4,000 people and contributes $731 million annually to the economy of Sonoma County, according to a recent study by the county's Economic Development Board.

Sonoma County residents take pride in this beautiful place we call home, and most locals take good care of the land and waters we share. But we still have a pollution problem, as runoff from roads, roofs and vineyards carry fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals into rivers that connect to our taps. And, as temperatures and water demands rise, some of our local salmon streams are becoming too shallow and warm to support the chinook, coho and steelhead fisheries that were once integral to the local way of life.

While many of the county's vineyards, managing more than 60,000 acres of grapes, have transitioned from water- and pesticide-intensive farming to adoption of biodynamic and dry farming methods, more progress is needed toward making Sonoma County a 100 percent sustainable wine growing region.

Statewide, an alarming 90 percent of rivers and streams assessed by the state are too polluted for drinking, fishing or swimming. California communities are spending $428 million each year to clean up trash and marine debris, and many Californians still lack access to the most basic necessity: safe and affordable drinking water.

California's next governor will inherit some of the strongest water laws in the country, but laws are only effective if they are adequately enforced. Whoever takes the reins from Gov. Jerry Brown must establish a strong, transparent enforcement strategy to protect clean water for our communities, economy and environment.

With the federal government actively working to defund and eviscerate clean water laws, we need strong champions in Sacramento and throughout the state to hold polluters accountable. Reliable enforcement will create a level playing field for the many farms, wineries and businesses that already are following the rules.

Perhaps the most important water-related decisions our next governor will have to make will be appointments to the state and regional water boards. These boards are responsible for protecting all of California's freshwater resources, as well as our bays, estuaries and 1,100 miles of coastline.

All too often, California water boards lack the resources and political support to pursue and punish polluters. In the coming years, their already big jobs will grow increasingly difficult, as a booming population and economy combined with a shrinking snowpack will stretch water supplies to the limit.

Our next governor should shore up this important safety net by appointing water board members who are qualified, knowledgeable and committed and ensuring that they are adequately funded for the vital work of enforcing California's stringent water laws.

As we look ahead to the June 5 primary, let's make sure clean water is on the agenda for all the candidates. Despite the many laws on the books to safeguard this precious resource, we must never take it for granted.

Virginia Strom-Martin represented the North Coast in the state Assembly from 1996-2002. She lives in Duncans Mills.

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