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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