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October 9, 2006

Prof’s service on water board benefits students, community

By Jennifer McNulty

When students in environmental studies professor Daniel Press’s classes grapple with water-related public-policy problems, chances are they’re wrestling with real-world challenges.

One of the most challenging policy issues Daniel Press has faced on the Water Quality Control Board involves the use of seawater for cooling at aging power plants.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

That’s because Press, professor and chair of environmental studies, is a member of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine regional boards that oversee water quality protection in California.

Charged with protecting surface and groundwater, the board handles everything from dry cleaner solvents that contaminate groundwater to leaking underground gasoline tanks and agricultural runoff with high concentrations of fertilizer.

“People still can’t believe that we levy fines when storm water runoff chokes creeks and rivers, but we will, because if you want to protect the fish and wildlife in waterways, you can’t choke them with sediments,” said Press. “Dirt is a pollutant, even though people don’t think of it that way.”

One of the most challenging policy issues Press has faced during his tenure, which began in 2002, is a problem he shared with students. The Central Coast is home to aging power plants in Diablo Canyon, Moss Landing, and Morro Bay. As required by law, each facility has applied for a renewal of its permit to operate, and each is on hold pending reviews of water-related environmental impacts.

Each plant withdraws huge amounts of seawater that’s used for cooling purposes--Diablo Canyon withdraws 2 billion gallons per day. The process inadvertently traps fish and larvae, and the water that is returned to the ocean is up to 20 degrees warmer. The environmental impacts are significant: Biologists, including UCSC’s Peter Raimondi, have determined that mostly warm-water species now live in Diablo Cove, where Diablo Canyon’s water is returned to the sea.

“These power plants would never be permitted today, but we have them, and nobody wants to take that much power offline,” said Press.

The question of whether to reauthorize the plants, and if so under what circumstances, serves as a valuable case study for students, who learn about the technology that produces electricity and the tradeoffs policy makers and regulators weigh when when making decisions about whether to renew a permit or not.

“The students ask a lot of the right questions,” said Press. “They don’t want to put workers out of work, and they want to know how to balance the costs and benefits of power production.”

In the end, the fate of the three plants may be in the hands of the Second District Court of Appeals, which is poised to rule on the issue of mitigating the impacts of seawater removal in one area by restoring habitat in another location and on the ways in which regulators may value the costs and benefits of cooling waters, explained Press.

The board faced another major challenge when it was ordered by the California legislature several years ago to bring agriculture under its regulatory umbrella. Operating on about 800,000 acres of the Central Coast, farmers represent a major stakeholder in the region. “Our region did the best job in the state, and we were first,” said Press. “We reached a compromise between improving water quality and not bankrupting our region’s 1,500 farmers.”

Farmers use copious amounts of water for irrigation, but in the end, farmers were not required to get permits. Instead, all growers must participate in ongoing water-protection training and water-monitoring efforts to identify “hot spots” where high levels of fertilizer or pesticide runoff could jeopardize water quality, and they must implement a suite of “best management practices,” said Press.

The nine regional water quality boards are unique entities that function as independent regulatory commissions with quasi-judicial powers, as well as enforcement powers. “It’s like the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court, with some legislative power, too,” said Press, an environmental policy expert.

“These boards give rank-and-file citizens decision-making power and remove important state decisions from the control of party bosses,” said Press, noting that their predecessors were created during an era of populism in California. “There’s the potential for greater accountability in regulatory decision-making.”

One of nine members on the Central Coast Board, Press was encouraged by local environmentalists to apply for a seat that was vacated in 2002. In 2004, he was approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve a full four-year term. Press travels to San Luis Obispo for meetings every six weeks, for which he receives a $100 stipend and reimbursement for mileage. Preparing for meetings, which can run as late as 11 p.m., can be demanding, said Press, noting that the agenda can run 800 pages.

But for the most part, Press enjoys the work, is proud of his service to the greater community, and gets a kick out of opening the eyes of students to real-world regulatory issues.

“Every winter, there are scores of students keeping their eyes out for storm drains overflowing with muddy water, because they know that’s an indication that the proper mitigations aren’t in place to cope with the runoff,” he said with a smile. “And they know who to call.” 

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