California Car Wash Fundraisers and Environmental Law

Many nonprofit groups are upset that they are allowed to hold car wash fundraisers in some California cities. It’s not that government officials are against your groups raising money, it’s that they’re worried about where the soapy, dirty water is going. It’s a problem and it might be good for you to understand some of the history behind the rules rather than get upset 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 problems, with the country’s waterways becoming polluted by factories, open pit mining, and sewage treatment plants, or lack thereof. It was actually quite a problem. It was an ecosystem disaster, causing disease and death to wildlife and some people. When it was determined how bad the problem really was, the federal government authorized the states to take care of the problems within their state. States enacted state laws to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the federal government tightened standards, forcing states to either tighten or violate their standards. With the threat of withholding federal funds from the federal states, the states passed more and more laws. The industry was obviously not happy and even government agencies were unable to comply with the laws they made. Therefore, target dates have been set to give everyone time to stick to them. Environmental consulting firms sprung up overnight, along with a whole new industry of environmental equipment and product manufacturers, many of whom were not even compliant themselves. Of course, all good things take time and clearing our water is obviously a good thing.

The State of California divided the state into nine distinct regions, recognizing that each region had different pollution problems based on industry types, demographics, and population in the areas. These regions were referred to as Regional Water Quality Control Districts (RWQCD). These were all controlled by the State Board, defined in 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 take a turn for the better.

The SWRCB was founded in California and is commonly referred to as “The State Board”. The state board governs water quality control, which includes any activity or factor that could affect the quality of the state’s water bodies and includes the prevention and correction of water pollution and nuisance. That sounds very broad and the State Board has a lot of power. Luckily, thanks to the combined efforts of industry, government and people, they now understand the issues enough to make smart decisions and they fully understand that your organization needs to make money. Instead of preventing and banning activities, everyone is working on solutions and procedures to allow responsible layoffs and create a win-win situation for everyone.

Recently, state water quality control boards asked counties to apply for and receive permits to discharge the same waters they have been discharging for years. These permits were called NPDES permits. This stands for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. Most counties have assigned an existing department to work on this permit. It is most likely the county flood control agency. Unfortunately, this part of the county deals with permits for land development, bridges, infrastructure, etc. Until now, they knew very little about pollution. Some counties turned that responsibility over to the Environmental Health Services Department, which in turn worked with the Flood Control Department, which controls storm sewers. The NPDES permits are state approved for local urban discharge discharges. Each city in each county shall through municipal regulations enact ordinances and plan to control their local runoff/pollution. The district remains responsible to the state and the states to the federal government. The NPDES requirements are a descendant of the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, although locally enforced, authorized and regulated by cities, counties and states.

The actual law used to enforce these statutes can be found at 13.260 – 13.265 of the California Water Code. In fact, at one point it says:

“No person or persons may discharge water into waterways without permission or authorization from a state regional water quality control agency.”

That sounds pretty absolute, doesn’t it? It is against the law to take a glass of water from the sink, go to a gully and pour the water down the drain. Of course, this would not harm the environment per se, but by granting absolute powers, the regional water quality control authorities can examine everything on a case-by-case basis. So be serious about your water after washing those cars.


City, county, and state governments know that car washing has always been a popular fundraiser for athletic teams, Boy Scout troop, schools, and other nonprofit groups. Because of the low capital investment costs, car wash fundraisers can generate significant profits. Over the past decade, government agencies, particularly in California, have been working with industry to find solutions to clean our water. America’s waterways are significantly cleaner today than they used to be, although many regions are more densely populated. It worked great. Now we go one step further. No pollution from any source, even mobile groomers. Only in recent years have government agencies decided that the adverse environmental impact is too great to allow car wash fundraisers. Coupled with heavy lobbying by fixed car wash owners, some cities and counties have actually banned these fundraisers unless specific procedures are followed to ensure wash water does not enter storm sewers, ditches, or waterways.

Their reasoning: Dirty water containing soap and detergent, exhaust residue, gasoline and motor oil is washed off the cars and flows into nearby storm drains. Unlike the water we use in our homes and businesses, which goes down the drain and is treated in sewage treatment plants, water that goes down storm drains goes directly into rivers, bays, oceans and lakes without any treatment whatsoever. Obviously, a single car wash fundraiser will have little or no adverse impact on the environment. However, government agencies know that overall car wash fundraisers contribute to significant pollution.

They also recognize that biodegradable soaps do not reduce the impact. Because biodegradable just means that the soap will degrade over time. Plutonium too, it just takes longer. Soaps and car washes are still toxic to aquatic organisms even if they are biodegradable. Think about it a little. If you really want the city to let you run a car wash fundraiser, you need to figure out how to keep the dirty, soapy water out of the gully.