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California Car Wash Fundraisers and Environmental Law
Many nonprofit groups resent being allowed to hold car wash fundraisers in certain California cities. It’s not that government officials object to your groups fundraising, it’s that they worry about where the dirty, soapy water goes. This is a problem and it might be good for you to understand some of the history behind the rules rather than worry about it.
Well, it all started many years ago when Congress passed the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 during the Nixon administration. This was in response to major pollution issues involving the pollution of the country’s waterways by factories, surface mines and sewage treatment plants or lack thereof. It was actually quite a problem. It was an ecosystem disaster causing disease and death of wildlife and some people. When it was discovered how serious the problem was, the federal government allowed the states to take care of the problems within their state. States have enacted state laws to help address the problem. Meanwhile, the federal government has tightened standards forcing states to tighten their standards or be in violation. With the threat of withholding federal money from the states, the states continued to make more and more laws. The industry was obviously not happy and even the government agencies were unable to comply with the laws they enacted. Thus, target dates were enacted to give everyone time to comply. Overnight, environmental consulting firms sprang up and a whole new industry of environmental equipment and products, many of which were not even compliant themselves. Of course, all good things take time and cleaning our water is obviously a good thing.
The State of California divided the state into nine different regions, realizing that each region had different pollution problems based on the types of industries, demographics, and population in the regions. These areas were called Regional Water Quality Control Districts (RWQCD). These were all controlled by the State Board which was defined by the Federal Clean Water Act as the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). Once the problem was broken down into smaller pieces, things started to change for the better.
The SWRCB was formed in California and is commonly referred to as “The State Board”. The State Council regulates water quality control, that is, any activity or factor that may affect the quality of state waters and includes the prevention and correction of pollution and water nuisance. It seems very inclusive and the Council of State has a lot of power. Fortunately, through the combined efforts of industry, government and the public, they now understand the issues enough to make smart decisions and they fully understand that your organization needs to make money. So, rather than preventing and prohibiting activities, everyone is working on solutions and procedures to allow responsible discharges creating a win-win situation for all.
Recently, the National Water Quality Commissions have asked counties to submit for approval and receive permits to discharge the same waters they have been discharging for years. These permits were called NPDES permits. It stands for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. Most counties have assigned an existing department to work on this permit. More likely than not, it’s the county flood control department. Unfortunately, this part of the county deals with development permits for land, bridges, infrastructure, etc. Until now, they knew very little about pollution. Some counties assigned this responsibility to the Department of Environmental Health Services, which in turn worked with the Department of Flood Control, which controls storm sewers. NPDES permits are state approved for urban runoff discharges from local counties. Each city in each county, through municipal codes, is expected to pass ordinances and come up with a plan to control their local runoff/pollution. The county remains responsible to the state and the states to the federal government. NPDES requirements originate from the Environmental Protection Agency, although they are locally enforced, authorized, and regulated by cities, counties, and states.
The actual law that is used to enforce these statutes is found in 13.260 – 13.265 of the California Water Code. At one point it actually reads:
“No person or persons may discharge water into waterways without the permission or permit of a regional state water quality board.”
Sounds pretty absolute doesn’t it. It is against the law to take a glass of water from your sink, head to a storm drain, and pour the water down the drain. This in itself would obviously not harm the environment, but by giving absolute power to the regional water quality control commissions, they can examine everything on a case-by-case basis. So be serious about your water after washing these cars.
City, county and state governments know that car washing has always been a favorite fundraiser for sports teams, scout troops, schools and other non-profit groups. Due to the low capital investment costs, car wash fundraisers can generate significant profits. Over the past decade, government agencies, particularly in California, have worked with industry to find solutions to clean our water. Today, America’s waterways are noticeably cleaner than they were in the past, even though many areas are more densely populated. It worked very well. Now we go further. No pollution from any source, even mobile dog groomers. Only in recent years have government agencies decided that the negative environmental impact is too great to support car wash fundraisers. Along with intense lobbying from fixed-site car wash owners, some cities and counties have actually banned these fundraisers unless certain procedures are followed to ensure that no waste wash water enters the sewer. storm drains, ditches or waterways.
Their reasoning is as follows: Dirty water containing soaps and detergents, car exhaust residue, gasoline and motor oils is washed from cars and flows into nearby storm drains. Unlike the water we use in our homes and businesses which flows into sewers and is treated in sewage treatment plants, the water that goes into storm sewers flows directly into rivers, bays, oceans and lakes without any type of treatment. Obviously, fundraising for a car wash alone will create little or no negative impact on the environment. But government agencies know that, collectively, fundraisers for car washes contribute to significant pollution.
They also realize that biodegradable soaps do not lessen the impact. Indeed, biodegradable only means that the soap will degrade over time. Plutonium too, it just takes longer. Soaps and car washes are still toxic to aquatic life even though they are biodegradable. Think about that a bit. If you really want the city to let you fundraise for the car wash, you’ll have to find a way to keep the dirty soapy water out of the storm drains.
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