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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Stop the Presses! Government Works!

L.A. City Council's prudent decision to raise sewer fees will let crews replace deteriorating infrastructure.

The Los Angeles City Council today took the bold step of supporting unanimously a substantial sewage service fee increase. The household fee will incrementally increase from an average of $29 a month to $53 a month over the next 10 years. The hike will generate an additional $1.8 billion over the next decade to pay for much-needed sewer and sewage treatment plant maintenance, repairs and replacement.

 I’ve been going to council meetings for over 25 years and this was the most sophisticated and intelligent council discussion on wastewater that I’ve ever seen. The lack of public opposition to the rate increase underscores the Bureau of Sanitation’s effectiveness in educating the public. Even the Chamber of Commerce strongly supported the measure.

The end result? Multiple wins – for public health, for the environment, for long-term, sustainable green jobs.  It also marks a step in the restoration of my faith in the public process.

If the L.A. City Council can unanimously approve a major sewer service rate increase during an ongoing recession, then there is hope for government elsewhere to provide leadership on other environmental and green jobs issues. Today, L.A. understood that sewage infrastructure may be out of sight, but it can never be out of mind.

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WEFTEC Flexes Its Mussels

Sea shells find a second life at the world's largest water quality convention.

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew King, communications director for Heal the Bay.

In my past life as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, I covered way too many film and TV trade shows. Heavy on the glitz and light on substance, these promotional confabs left you exhausted from sensory overload. The studios pulled out all the stops: Jumbotron video banks, hip-hop performances, prancing bikini babes, fog machines, you name it …

As you might imagine, attending something called the Water Environment Federation’s 84th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference is a bit tamer. But what the world’s largest water quality conference and exhibition lacks in wacky, it certainly makes up in wonky.

Held this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center, WEFTEC 2011 features a dizzying array of the latest technologies and equipment involved in water treatment and sustainability.  I had been kindly invited to check out the conference by Alec Mackie, who serves as VP of the Los Angeles Basin unit of the California Water Environment Assn.

Staring out at the endless sea of UV filtration systems, contaminant and nutrient removal services, data monitors and old-fashioned infrastructure like pumps and pipes, I immediately thought of Mark Gold, Heal the Bay president and self-admitted water geek . With 20,000 participants spread over three giant exhibition halls, this was a veritable Versailles of wastewater. Gold must be in heaven, I thought. Unfortunately, I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist. I felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land.

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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 Clean Start in Ventura

Ventura's highly productive Santa Clara River estuary will no longer receive direct sewage plant discharges under a unique settlement agreement announced today.

After a decade of disagreement about the impacts of sewage treatment plant discharges to the Santa Clara River estuary, the city of Ventura and environmental groups Ventura Coastkeeper, the Wishtoyo Foundation and Heal the Bay today jointly announced a settlement agreement to protect the estuary while increasing local water recycling.

The Santa Clara River estuary is the terminus of one of Southern California’s largest and most productive river systems.  The area is also home to the endangered southern steelhead trout and tidewater goby. The agreement will end the last direct sewage discharge to an estuary in California.

The settlement will result in at least a 50% reduction (approximately 4-5 million gallons a day) and up to a 100% reduction (8-10 million gallons per day) in treated sewage discharges to the estuary.  This tertiary-treated effluent (filtered and disinfected) will be recycled locally for irrigation and other non-potable uses. The water that doesn’t get recycled will be discharged to a treatment wetland that will further cleanse the treated wastewater.  Then, the water will flow through the wetland before being discharged to the estuary.

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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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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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Suing Over Septics

spetic-rincon

Despite years of public outcry at Rincon and other locales, the State Water Board has been slow to adopt mandated regulations on septic systems

Enough is enough.  Although Heal the Bay generally only uses litigation as a last resort, we do have our limits.  On Tuesday, Santa Barbara environmental group Heal the Oceans and Heal the Bay filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board for its failure to implement Assembly Bill 885, which required the Board to develop regulations for on-site wastewater treatment systems. AB 885 was authored by former assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson in 1999 and Gov. Davis signed it into law in 2000. The bill required the Board to develop regulations for the siting, permitting and operation of on-site wastewater treatment systems, or OWTS, by 2004.

The regulations took aim at septic systems, which pose a serious threat to water quality at several famous beaches up and down the coast.  After seven years of patience and a decade of regulatory negotiations with the state, county health agencies, OWTS experts and local government representatives, the environmental groups involved felt that they had no choice but to sue the state to ensure that the law would be implemented. Coast Law Group filed the suit on behalf of the organizations.

Both groups were instrumental in the passage of the law as bill sponsors.  In the 1990s, while Hillary Hauser and Heal the Oceans led efforts to clean up chronically polluted Rincon, Heal the Bay pushed for cleanup at the even more polluted Surfrider Beach.  Both groups noted scientific studies that found human pathogens in the adjacent coastal lagoons — strong evidence that nearby septic systems were causing or contributing to chronic water quality problems that posed health risks to the surfing community.

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