Warning! Sometimes I’m prone to write in nerd-speak about the confusing labyrinth of water quality regulations that weaken water quality protection. With apologies to the reader, this is one of those times.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Board approved Thursday yet another Water Effects Ratio (WER) for a polluted water body. A WER is a pseudo-scientific modeling exercise to determine how much of a pollutant is bioavailable to kill or poison aquatic life.
The only time anyone ever does a WER study is to get out of complying with water quality standards to protect human health and aquatic life. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done a WER study that has resulted in tougher water quality standards. So in essence WER really stands for Water Effluent limit Reductions.
Because the Regional Water Board has become WERS ‘R’ Us, Heal the Bay has begged the board to develop some semblance of a policy or guidance to bring strong science to the WER development process.
Once again, the board pointedly refused our pleas and granted a WER/effluent reduction by a factor of nearly 4 for copper discharges to the Los Angeles River from Burbank and L.A. sewage treatment plants.
The Los Angeles River is impaired for toxic metals, yet the board is giving out de facto dilution factors for dischargers like Halloween candy. Also, WER studies often ignore the fact that rivers flow into the ocean, where copper is far more toxic to marine life than freshwater aquatic species.
As an environmental scientist frustrated with the lack of progress cleaning up our local waterways, it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m upset about giving polluters a break. However, I acknowledge that not every waterway is the same and some lakes and streams have different temperatures, pH, hardness and organic material. All of these can affect the toxicity of the water.
As a result, the EPA came up with a WER development guidance document in the 1990s. Then the Bush administration came in and decided that the WER study requirements in the guidance document were just too darn tough (i.e. expensive and scientifically rigorous).
So they came up with WER guidance lite. Now dischargers just need to grab some samples at various locations about four or so times over a given year, run it through a formula, and voila: instant water effluent limit reductions!
One little study over a humorously short time (it isn’t like LA has variability in rainfall conditions that range from five to 35 inches.) and the dischargers can save millions in compliance costs. That’s a pretty sweet deal!
Ideally, the EPA and the State Water Board would get rid of WERs and start rigorously requiring water quality standards to be met in our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. After all, the amount of science that went into the development of our national and state water quality standards was tremendous. And the standards were approved because they protect human health and aquatic life. But that dream will not come true.
However, the EPA could get rid of the Bush guidance (and get rid of the Bush Total Maximum Daily Load memo while they’re at it) and develop a technically superior method based on a greater range of water quality factors.
A lot has changed in water quality science over the last 15 years. In California, the State Board could develop a statewide policy that is tougher than the Bush guidance. After all, California regulations are often tougher than national regulations because we place greater value on protecting public health and aquatic life.
Or the L.A. Regional Board could ask the Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project to develop scientifically defensible WER study guidance. Funding for the effort could come from Regional Board enforcement actions that result in sizable penalties.
Until something is done to stop the weakening of water quality protections one water body at a time, every WER will be contentious. And dischargers will be more motivated to complete studies to avoid compliance rather than spending resources to clean up the water.