Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Citing health concerns, State Parks has put the kibosh on the notion of creating a dog beach in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of OC Weekly.

In Santa Monica, there are two environmental issues that seem to come up every five years like clockwork: fluoridation of drinking water and dog beaches.  A few weeks ago, the Santa Monica City Council decided to mollify the dog beach supporters by voting 6-1 to study the feasibility of a dog beach in the city.  

Thankfully, the latest battle over dog beaches seems to have come to an abrupt end with state officials making it clear to Santa Monica staff that they will not provide necessary approvals. 

As the president of Heal the Bay, a scientist with a doctorate on the health risks of swimming at polluted beaches, the owner of three rescue dogs, a father of three, and the longtime chair of the city’s Environmental Task Force, I’ve been involved at every level imaginable of the great dog beach debate for 15 years.

Although Santa Monica beach water quality has improved dramatically in the last three years (thanks to voter support of Measure V), our beaches still don’t consistently meet water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

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A Consistent Message at WEFTEC

Water convention attendees want more regulatory clarity.

The WEFTEC water quality conference, with its acres of pumps, filters, water treatment devices and other gizmos, moved out of the L.A. Convention Center last week. But I’m still thinking about what the 20,000-person gathering of H2O nerds means for our nation’s waters.  I was asked to give three talks at the conference: one on the public view of chemicals of emerging concern in recycled water; another on the future of stormwater regulation for cities and industry; and a discussion on the greening of Los Angeles through stormwater projects and regulation.

After the debates with water professionals, I was struck by a common need:  Everyone wants greater regulatory consistency and clarity.

The current federal approach is for regulations, memos, and policies to have  a great deal of  “flexibility.” But that wiggle room means that there isn’t much incentive to improve water quality programs.  Any investor in cutting-edge water treatment technology should have the expectation that the regulatory climate will push everyone to cleaner water that is more protective of human health and aquatic life.

Without that regulatory certainty, there’s no incentive for cities or industry to buy more expensive, more effective water pollution technologies other than “doing the right thing.”  Based on the lack of progress on stormwater pollution abatement nationwide, the altruistic approach has resulted in limited success.

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Go With The Flow

Transparency has cost the Bureau of Sanitation.

About six months ago, the city of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation (BoS) started setting up dozens of meetings with the public and the environmental  community on the city’s wastewater system upgrade plan and the need for a major increase in sewer service charges. After all, the BoS had frozen fee increases 14 out of the last 20 years. And it’s held the line the last three years at height of the recession, but wastewater infrastructure waits for no one.

BoS sought to demonstrate that the sewer infrastructure and its four sewage treatment plants (Terminal Island, Glendale, Tillman and Hyperion) are in danger of falling apart. The deteriorating pipes and plants pose a significant risk to public health and safety. Emergency repairs on the infrastructure may cost the city infintely more than replacing it. The delayed maintenance also exposes the city to costly litigation, enforcement and penalties.

Heal the Bay was founded in 1985 on the issue of decaying sewer infrastructure.  Some Santa Monica Bay bottom-dwelling fish had tumors and fin rot, and there was a dead zone seven miles out in the middle of the Bay where Hyperion dumped its1200+ tons of sludge every day.  Also, million gallon sewage spills were commonplace.

After the city rebuilt Hyperion and major sections of the sewer infrastructure, the dead zone went away, the massive sewage spills decreased in frequency, and the Bay began to heal.

However, in the late 1990s, the frequency of sewage spills started to rise again.  Then Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the city and the end result was an agreement to repair and replace much more of the sewer infrastructure.  Just as important, the city ramped up its sewer inspection and repair program.  The end result was a more than 80% drop in sewage spills.  The days of students walking through raw sewage-filled streets on their way to school were a thing of the past.

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Seismic Shift at the EPA?

The D.C. quake led to evacuations that snuffed heated negotiations at the EPA over new beach water quality criteria.

I flew out to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, to help voice environmental community concerns about the direction of the National Beach Water Quality Criteria due out in 2012. The NRDC’s Steve Fleischli, a longtime friend, joined me for the meeting with Stoner and about a dozen Office of Water staffers in the EPA East building. Other enviros from Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay and New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action joined by phone.

We remain upset with the direction of the EPA draft criteria for a number of reasons. At a workshop in New Orleans earlier this year, and in a number of subsequent conference calls, EPA Office of Water staff made it clear that the proposed rules would be nearly identical to the 1986 criteria, marking almost no changes in 25 years. In some ways, the criteria will be even weaker than the 1986 version, despite more than two decades of new studies.

I had the privilege of taking the lead for the enviros in the meeting. I explained that EPA was considering an approach to beach water quality regulation that would be far less protective than California’s and would compound existing weaknesses in the 25-year-old criteria. Because I’ve spent those same 25 years working on beach water quality issues as an advocate, scientist, public health professional and legislative sponsor, I was pretty wound up.

About 50 minutes into today’s meeting, as I was attempting to make a key point, the ground started to move. Then the chandeliers started to sway.  The rock ‘n’ roll continued for nearly a minute, with some folks moving away from the light fixtures, others diving under the desk and still others crowding the door jamb.  There I stood, making a stand for greater health protection for swimmers and surfers during a 5.9 earthquake.

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A Bloomin’ Mess

Would the EPA call this impairment?

Does the scene in this photo count as algal impairment under the Clean Water Act?  I’m just curious if the folks in Florida that are attempting to blow up the Clean Water Act over proposed nutrient standards would agree that this is impairment.  After all, the kids appear to be enjoying themselves, and after all, isn’t that what recreational water contact is all about? Heal the Bay gets in a lot of fights on the definition of algal impairment with regulators and the regulated community.  When you see pictures like the ones from Qingdao in China, it makes you realize that the regulated community isn’t even willing to come part way on the issue.  If there is a Karenia bloom in Florida that poses a respiratory health risk to beach goers, is that an impairment?  If Malibu Creek has an antifreeze algae bloom that covers the entire creek for a quarter mile, is that impairment? The regulated community may argue that 10% algal cover for  30% of the time isn’t impairment (a definition previously used by some at EPA). But how can they look at pictures like those in China, Florida and Malibu Creek and not offer nutrient reduction recommendations?

Harmful algal blooms are a growing problem that are choking our nation’s rivers and coastal waters with devastating impacts to aquatic ecosystems.  Yet, the EPA and most states are still arguing over the right thing to do and completing an endless series of studies.  They should be requiring aggressive reductions in nutrient discharge loadings (nitrogen and phosphorus) and concentrations, and they should have done it years ago.

Knocked Out in Malibu!

The city of Malibu scored an absolute knockout Thursday in Round 3 of the battle for improved water quality at Surfrider, Malibu Lagoon, and nearby beaches. Watching Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin close the done deal for weakened septic system regulations with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board was like watching boxing champ Manny Pacquiao take on Woody Allen.  No contest. Hogin should be in line for a big raise for negotiating a deal for Malibu that will save ratepayer’s millions at the probable expense of water quality at beaches visited by millions of visitors each year.  And she did this when Malibu’s only leverage was its stated threat of litigation against the Regional Water Board for enforcing previously approved prohibitions. The board had already unanimously voted for regulations against new septic tanks and the phase out of existing ones in the civic center area in favor of a centralized waste water treatement and recycling facility.

The reward for Malibu’s threat to sue was a unanimous 6-0 Regional Board vote to approve a MOU that severely undercuts the previously Board approved Basin Plan amendment to prohibit land discharges of sewage in the Malibu civic center.

Despite a nearly five-hour hearing, and extensive testimony from Santa Monica Baykeeper, Surfrider Foundation, Malibu Surfing Assn., Heal the Bay and many others, the board only made trivial changes to the MOU.

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Malibu Septics: Round Three

Does the Regional Water Board have the stomach for house-to-house septics enforcement in Malibu?

Round three on the great debate over what downtown Malibu will do with its sewage is scheduled for the Regional Water Board hearing this Thursday in the nearby beach city of Glendale.  Will the infamous Malibu smell waft into olfactory history?  The answer may or may not be clearer after Thursday. As I previously blogged, the proposed wastewater Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has many flaws including: no true accountability for the city of Malibu in the event residents reject a sewer assessment fee; the creation of a new, enormous Phase 3 with a compliance period of 2025, and even then, only if studies demonstrate that onsite septic systems are contributing to water quality problems in Malibu Lagoon; and the inclusion of systems in Phase 3 (Malibu Road, much of Winter Canyon and the Hughes Lab on the hill) that would have to defy the laws of physics to pollute Malibu Lagoon, but not groundwater or Malibu’s beaches.  I’m sure the fact that Phase 3 residents have as good a chance of approving an assessment district as winning the state lottery had nothing to do with the creation and geography of the third phase.

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Healing San Pedro Bay

Some of the new regulations designed to clean up San Pedro Bay are more fork than spoon unfortunately.

Santa Monica Bay pollution may make the headlines, but the pollution in San Pedro Bay is a lot worse.  Last week the Regional Water Quality Control Board made an attempt to heal our other local bay by passing the most comprehensive and complicated Total Maximum Daily Load in California history.  (TMDLs are water body-specific pollutant limits.) The TMDL covered 79 different impairments of  Dominguez Channel and the Greater Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor (San Pedro Bay) waters and contaminants, including heavy metals like mercury, lead and copper, DDT, PCBs, toxicity and petroleum hydrocarbons.

The bottom line is that there are now five species of fish in the Bay that the state recommends you avoid eating and another 11 that you shouldn’t eat more than once a week.  Also, there are numerous toxic hotpots and the benthic ecology (bottom-dwelling animals) at some of those locations is highly degraded.

Although this TMDL was one of the most important in the entire Consent Decree between the environmental community and the EPA, it was delayed until 2011 because of its complexity and the number of industrial heavy hitters that are regulated by the action, including such players as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, numerous oil companies, the Montrose Chemical Co. (the folks who brought us DDT), and numerous upstream cities with intense industrial use. Perhaps the biggest reason for the lateness of the TMDL was the complex and time-consuming modeling (five years in the making) of San Pedro Bay and the Dominguez Channel required to develop the regulation.

The Regional Board voted 5-0 to approve the staff recommended TMDL over strong opposition from Montrose and the Coalition for Practical Regulation cities. Montrose and the CPR cities opposed the TMDL because of cost concerns, and they actually claimed that they shouldn’t have to pay for the Dominguez Channel and San Pedro Bay cleanup because they already had to pay millions of dollars under the Superfund and Natural Resources damages lawsuit in the 1990s. In other words, “Let the locals eat toxic fish!”

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Unanswered Questions in Miami

The EPA didn't reveal new beach water quality monitoring criteria at its just concluded annual National Beach Conference. But there were other tidbits to share.

I spent last week at the EPA’s National Beach Conference in Miami, where I gave a couple of presentations, learned about the latest in beach water quality research, and heard from EPA on the upcoming criteria for measuring water quality.

EPA’s criteria haven’t been updated since 1986, and the new rules are required to be completed by the end of 2012 under a Consent Decree with the NRDC.  With the recent completion of a comprehensive research plan, EPA staff members have all the information they’ll use to develop the new criteria.

Unfortunately, within the first two hours of the conference it became clear that the EPA wasn’t far enough in criteria development to share anything new with conference participants.  Instead, we were told that the draft criteria will make their debut June 14-15 at a meeting in New Orleans.

Conference participants asked if the new criteria would be as protective as the existing ones. (Current criteria are based on an 8 in a 1,000 risk of stomach flu for swimmers at freshwater beaches and 19 in 1,000 for ocean beaches).  Also, they asked if the criteria would allow states, cities or counties to develop site-specific rules.  And would beach monitoring programs be required to use rapid methods to quantify fecal bacteria densities in a few hours rather than waiting until the next day?

All questions were left unanswered.

Despite the lack of clarity on the direction of the criteria, there were some noteworthy outcomes at the conference.

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Day and Night

EPA chief Lisa Jackson tests water in Compton Creek.

Wednesday was a rewarding whirlwind: An extraordinary afternoon in the Compton Creek, a stimulating evening roundtable at the Skirball, and an after-hours meal in Venice. 

A few weeks ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency reached out to Heal the Bay to let us know that chief Lisa Jackson would be visiting the L.A. area and that she wanted to visit Compton Creek.

Heal the Bay contacted Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to set up a tour for Jackson at Compton Creek. The agreed-upon plan was to announce the long-anticipated purchase of the four-acre soft-bottomed section of Compton Creek and a request to Jackson for federal assistance to develop a flood-control improvement plan based on a low-impact development approach rather than raising the walls on the river.

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