Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo

California lawmakers are considering passing several major environmental policies, each targeting different aspects of public health and environmental protection. These proposed laws, which are still subject to change, target issues ranging from lead contamination in school drinking water to fossil fuel responsibility for climate damage. If passed, these legislative initiatives could bring significant changes to environmental regulations and public health protections across the state.

California Assembly Bill 1851 – Learning Without Lead: Safer Water for California Schools

The existing California Safe Drinking Water Act mandates the State Water Resources Control Board (“Board”) to oversee drinking water regulations to protect public health. This act establishes a grant program in cooperation with the State Department of Education to improve access to and quality of drinking water in public schools, kindergarten through 12th Class as well as preschools and daycare centers on public school campuses.

Based on this, Assembly Bill 1851 (Holden) (“AB 1851”) proposes the creation of a pilot program, to be directed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction (“SPI”) and contingent on the availability of funds, to test and reduce lead contamination of drinking water in facilities whose plumbing was installed before January 1, 2010. If passed, AB 1851 would require the SPI to select between six (6) and ten (10) Local Educational Agencies (“LEAs”), defined as school districts, county school boards, or charter schools, with varying student populations to participate. Selected LEAs would be notified of their selection by July 1, 2025, and would receive grants to cover testing and remediation costs. Selected LEAs would be required to notify parents when lead levels exceed 5 ppm, immediately close all affected outlets, and provide alternative lead-free drinking water sources.

If adopted, AB 1851 would require a public higher education institution selected by SPI to provide technical assistance to participating LEAs, who would be required to report information on the pilot program to the technical assistance provider by January 1, 2028. The technical assistance provider would then be required to provide a detailed analysis of the program results to SPI by July 1, 2028. SPI would be required to submit this report to the Department of Finance and appropriate legislative committees by July 15, 2028, and make it publicly available on the state Department of Education website.

Senate Bill 1178 – Clean Water, Healthy Future: Corporate Reporting and Mitigation Actions

The Board and California's nine regional water quality control boards currently regulate water quality and prescribe wastewater disposal requirements under the federal Clean Water Act and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. Senate Bill 1178 (Padilla) (“SB 1178”) would introduce additional measures to improve water quality protection.

If passed, SB 1178 would require the board to adopt regulations by August 1, 2025, for annual reporting by compliance units, which are companies with more than 2,500 employees in California. These regulations would address waste discharges that have the potential to impact the state's water quality and public health. Among these regulations would be setting limits for reporting discharge sites within 50 miles of the California border. Compliance units would be required to submit their first report to the board by June 1, 2026, and annually thereafter. The board would then quantify the cost of remediating the reported contamination and notify compliance units, who can then decide whether to remediate the contamination themselves or pay an additional charge to cover the remediation costs.

Under the bill, the surcharge would be paid into a newly created California Water Quality and Public Health Fund dedicated exclusively to addressing waste contamination impacts. In addition, the board could charge compliance agencies reasonable fees for administrative costs and impose penalties of up to $1 million for noncompliance, taking into account good faith compliance efforts.

Senate Bill 1390 – Proactive Flood Management

The right to use water in California can be acquired through appropriation for charitable purposes. However, diversion of floodwater for groundwater recharge is exempt from the appropriation right requirement if certain conditions are met. These conditions include notification of imminent flooding by a local or county agency that has a local flood control plan or has considered flood risks in its most recent general plan. Currently, entities that undertake such diversions must submit a final report to the Board within 15 days of termination. These regulations apply to diversions initiated before January 1, 2029.

Senate Bill 1390 (Caballero) (“SB 1390”) would extend the application of these requirements to diversions that began before June 1, 2032, and introduces several important changes. If passed, SB 1390 would allow local or county agencies to use a county emergency plan, in addition to a local flood protection plan or updated general plan, as the basis for justifying diversions. It also expands the definition of flood flows to include forecast flooding in addition to measured conditions. In addition, SB 1390 specifies that imminent flood risks will also consider forecasts within the next 15 days, allowing for more proactive flood management.

SB 1390 requires that diversions cease no later than 90 days after commencement, unless extended for an additional 30 days, with advance notice to the board. SB 1390 would require the final report to include the forecast models used, public data references, methods used to determine mitigation of flood conditions, and any extensions of diversions. The proposed legislation ensures that temporary flood diversions have the lowest priority compared to existing water rights and prevents harm to previous water rights holders.

Senate Bill 1497 – Poluters Pay Climate Cost Coverage Act: Hold fossil fuel companies accountable

Senate Bill 1497 (Menjivar) (“SB 1497”) introduces the Polluters Pay Climate Cost Recovery Act of 2024 (“2024 Act”), which aims to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for the environmental damage caused by their products between 2000 and 2020. It is intended to support California’s broader climate goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Administered by the California Environmental Protection Agency (“Agency”), the bill aims to shift some of the financial burden of climate damage from California taxpayers to the entities responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Within 90 days of the proposed 2024 law taking effect, the agency would be required to compile and publish a list of “responsible parties,” which are companies with a controlling interest in fossil fuel extraction or refining operations that collectively generated more than one billion tons of emissions worldwide during the specified period.

SB 1497 requires the agency to conduct a comprehensive climate cost study within one year of its passage to quantify total climate damage, including past and projected future damages to the state through December 31, 2045. The study must be updated at least every two years through January 1, 2046. Within 60 days of the completion of the study, the agency will determine each responsible party's share of the total climate damage costs and issue cost reimbursement claims accordingly. These claims will represent the appropriate share of damages attributable to each responsible party's emissions.

The funds raised through these cost-reimbursement requests will be deposited into a newly created “Poluters Pay Climate Fund” (“Fund”) in the state treasury. SB 1497 specifies that, once approved by the California Legislature, the Fund's money will be used for projects and programs aimed at mitigating, adapting, or responding to damages caused by climate change. In addition, the agency will be required to determine the initial implementation costs of the law and distribute those costs equitably among responsible parties to ensure effective implementation of the program.

Senate Bill 1147 – Monitoring of Microplastics in Drinking and Bottled Water

Senate Bill 1147 (Portantino) (“SB 1147”) introduces strict measures to combat the presence of microplastics in bottled water and protect public health. Under the existing Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Law, the State Department of Public Health regulates food, drugs, devices, and cosmetics, including bottled water, by enforcing quality and labeling standards and limiting contaminant levels. The bill would require water bottling plants to include data on microplastics levels in their annual reports to the Food and Drug Branch of the State Department of Public Health once the committee adopts a primary drinking water standard for microplastics. This information would also be required to be made available to consumers upon request, expanding the regulatory framework and creating stricter accountability for water bottling plants.

In addition, SB 1147 incorporates provisions from the California Safe Drinking Water Act by requiring the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to conduct a comprehensive study of the health effects of microplastics in drinking water, including bottled water. The goal of the study is to determine a safe level of microplastics that does not pose a significant health risk. It then tasks the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment with developing a public health goal for microplastics levels in drinking water, which the committee would review and use to establish a primary drinking water standard for microplastics.

If you have any questions regarding the subject of this warning, please do not hesitate to contact the authors for clarification and guidance.

Special thanks go to Farrah Ghaffarirafi, our legal trainee at FCPPG, for her extensive work on this alert.

This AALRR publication is for informational purposes only and should not be used as the basis for drawing conclusions in any particular area of ​​law. The applicability of the legal principles discussed may vary significantly in individual cases. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur during the publication process.

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