The state's system for regulating water quality is failing, according to the Little Hoover Commission. In a recent report, the investigative panel concluded the current system managed by the State Water Resources Control Board and nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards lacks transparency, consistency and accountability, and that the system does not demonstrably improve water quality.

Stormwater runoff, a subject that has become particularly controversial during recent years (see CP&DR, April 2008), received a great deal of attention. The commission found that the water boards are ill-equipped to deal with the issue, even though more than 30,000 stormwater discharges are subject to permits.

"Regional boards issue many of the permits, and boards have differing philosophies and policies toward stormwater regulation in the absence of statewide policies and scientific consensus on causes and solutions. As a result, stormwater discharges are subject to significantly different levels of regulation depending upon the region. The costs of cleaning up stormwater are enormous, fueling the debate about who should pay. The costs of stormwater pollution, however, are far greater, as beach closures impact the state's economy and environmental damage threatens to impair wildlife," the commission reported.

Because the state board and regional boards operate mostly autonomously, "there is little focus on clean-water outcomes or accountability," the commission reported. The panel found the boards lack data, scientific research and even an adequate information technology system. Most basin plans, which are supposed to provide the underpinning for all regulatory activity, are decades out of date and not a priority. Regional boards spend most of their time issuing permits, not making broad policy, the commission found.

The Little Hoover Commission made four broad recommendations:

• Reform the state board and regional boards. Restructure the state board as a full-time, nine-member panel. Five members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The other four members would be regional board chairs serving staggered two-year terms. Reduce regional boards from nine to seven members, with the chair serving as a full-time employee. Empower executive officers to issue permits to let the boards focus on quasi-legislative matters.

• Improve and increase use of data, scientific research and planning. Create an independent Water Data Institute to serve as a state library. Develop report cards for major water bodies much like the group Heal the Bay does for beaches. Update basin plans.

• Increase focus on clean-water outcomes and emphasize collaboration, creativity and problem-solving. Work with other government agencies on land uses and air emissions that affect water quality.

• Develop a standard cost-benefit analysis to help set priorities.

The full report is available on the Little Hoover Commission website: