California Car Wash Fundraisers and Environmental Act

Many nonprofit groups feel upset that some California Cities are allowed to run car wash fundraisers. Government officials are not against your fundraising, they’re worried about where the soapy dirty water goes. It’s a problem, and it might be good for you to understand some of the history behind the rules instead of getting upset about it.


It all started years ago when Congress passed the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 during the Nixon Administration. This came in response to the country’s major pollution problems, which included the contamination of waterways from factories, strip mining, and sewage treatment plants, or lack thereof. It was actually quite problematic. It was an ecosystem disaster that caused disease and death to wildlife and some people. When it was discovered how bad the problem really was, the federal government authorized the states to deal with the problems in their own states. States have enacted state laws to help solve the problem. Meanwhile, the federal government tightened the standards, forcing states to tighten or violate their standards. The states continued to enact more and more laws, threatening to withhold federal funds from the states. The industry was obviously not happy and even government agencies could not abide by the laws they made. Therefore, target dates have been deduced to allow time for everyone to comply. Environmental consulting firms have emerged overnight, along with an entirely new industry of environmental equipment and product manufacturers, many of which are not even compatible themselves. Of course all good things take time and cleaning our water is of course a good thing.

The State of California recognized that each region has different pollution problems based on industry type, demographics, and population in the regions, and divided the state into nine distinct regions. These zones were called ‘Regional Water Quality Control Zones’ (RWQCD). All of these are controlled by the State Board, defined by the Federal Clean Water Act as the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). Things started to change for the better when the problem was broken down into smaller pieces.

SWRCB was founded in California and is often referred to as the ‘State Board’. The State Board regulates Water Quality Control, any activity or factor that can affect the quality of the state’s waters, and includes the prevention and correction of water pollution and disturbance. That sounds too comprehensive, and the State Board has too much power. Fortunately, with the combined efforts of industry, government, and the public, they now understand matters enough to make smart decisions and fully understand that your organization needs to make money. Therefore, everyone is working on solutions and procedures to prevent activities and allow responsible evictions, which, rather than being illegal, create a win-win situation for all.

Recently, State Water Quality Control Boards have asked counties to obtain approval and permission to discharge the same waters they have discharged for years. These permissions were called NPDES permissions. It stands for National Pollution Discharge Prevention System. Most counties have appointed an existing department to work on this permit. Most likely, the county’s Flood Control Department. Unfortunately, this part of the county lacks land development, bridges, infrastructures, etc. dealing with permissions. Until now, they knew very little about pollution. Some counties have delegated this responsibility to the Environmental Health Services Department, which then worked with the Flood Control Department, which oversees the storm drains. NPDES permits are state-approved for local county urban runoff discharges. Every city in every county needs to pass regulations through municipal law and come up with a plan to control their local runoff/pollution. The state remains responsible to the state, and the states to the Federal Government. Although NPDES requirements are enforced, permitted, and regulated locally by cities, counties, and states, the EPA is a product of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The actual law used to enforce these statutes can be found in sections 13,260 – 13,265 of the California Water Code. At one point it actually reads:

“No person or persons may discharge water into any watercourse without obtaining a permit or permit from the state regional water quality control board.”

That sounds pretty absolute, right? It is against the law to take a glass of water from your sink and go to the rain drain and pour the water into the drain. Obviously, this in itself will not harm the environment, but Regional Water Quality Control Boards can review everything on a case-by-case basis with absolute authority. So be serious about your water after washing cars.


City, county, and state governments know that car washes are always a favorite fundraiser for sports teams, expeditions, schools, and other nonprofit groups. Due to their low capital investment costs, car wash funds can generate substantial profits. For the past decade, government agencies, especially in California, have been working with industry to find solutions to clean our water. America’s waterways today are much cleaner than they were in the past, although many regions are more densely populated. It works great. Now we go one step further. No pollution from any source, even mobile dog sitters. Only in the last few years have government agencies decided that the negative environmental impact is too great to allow car wash fundraisers. Along with vigorous lobbying from fixed-site car wash owners, some cities and counties have de facto banned these fundraising events unless specific procedures are followed to ensure that wastewater does not enter storm drains, ditches, or waterways.

Their reasoning is this: Dirty water containing soap and detergents, exhaust fumes, residues of gasoline and engine oils are washed from cars and flow into nearby storm drains. Unlike the water we use in our homes and workplaces, which flows into sewers and is treated in sewage treatment plants, water that flows into rainwater flows directly into rivers, bays, oceans and lakes without undergoing any treatment. Clearly, a car wash fundraiser alone will do little if any negative environmental impact. But government agencies know that car wash fundraisers collectively contribute to significant pollution.

They also know that biodegradable soaps do not reduce the effect. This is because its biodegradability only means that soap will degrade over time. So does plutonium, it just takes longer. Even though soaps and car washes are biodegradable, they are still toxic to aquatic life. Think about it a little. If you really want the city to allow you to run a car wash fundraiser, you’re going to have to figure out how to keep the dirty soapy water out of the storm drain.

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