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Clean Water

Photo of mountain peak above Mono Lake

Clean water is essential for life - not just for people, but for plants, wildlife, livestock, fish, and other aquatic life. That's obvious in arid areas of the Pacific Southwest, such as Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. Here, small sources of pollution can do major damage to wetlands and rivers.

Clean water is just as essential in wetter areas like Hawaii. In the tropical Pacific, soil erosion can wash silt into nearshore waters, killing coral - and all the other organisms that depend on it.

Everywhere, polluted runoff from careless logging or agricultural practices can dump silt, manure, or toxics into waterways. Sewage overflows and cesspools can spread disease pathogens. To prevent these and other water pollution problems, EPA assists state and tribal agencies by enforcing the federal Clean Water Act, funding infrastructure improvements, and providing other key types of support.

For human consumption, tap water must meet strict federal standards. Drinking water is routinely tested for dozens of potential bacterial and chemical contaminants. With more than 10,000 agencies and companies providing drinking water in the Pacific Southwest, making sure they all do it right is a big job. EPA works closely with state and tribal agencies to support and oversee these local compliance efforts.

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Surprises in California, Arizona's Monitoring Results

The Clean Water Act of 1972 requires states to identify waters that are "impaired" by pollutants. That's why state water monitoring efforts have usually focused on the most polluted waters. Over the last several years, however, EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) has funded the first truly statewide surface water monitoring in western states. In 2006, Arizona and California published their first EMAP results.

These "big picture" studies provide important context to the Pacific Southwest Region's official state lists of impaired waters, which now total about 1,300. A water body can be a section of river or stream, a lake, a bay, or a coastal area. Some waters are impaired by more than one pollutant.

Some of the results were surprising: For instance, 98% of California's coastal bays and estuaries had sufficient dissolved oxygen - an indicator of clean water - to support fish and other aquatic life.

Fig. 1. Statewide Assessments of Wadeable
Perennial Streams
Macroinvertebrate Index of Biotic Integrity
California (stream miles)
impaired 22%
non-impaired 78%
Arizona (stream miles)
most disturbed 57% (±12%)
intermediate 29% (±13%)
least disturbed 14% (±9%)

In assessing streams, Arizona and California monitored water chemistry, habitat, and biological integrity. Both states developed a macroinvertebrate index - a biological indicator of stream health - rather than just analyzing the water. Using this index, California found 78% of its streams "non-impaired" (where invertebrates indicating clean water were found). Arizona, however, categorized 57% of its stream areas as "most disturbed" - lacking aquatic invertebrates that indicate clean water (see Figure 1).

Arizona's outlook was not as good as had been expected. One possible explanation is that Arizona's streams, especially in the desert landscapes that cover most of the state, have less water than California's, making Arizona's aquatic life more vulnerable to pollutants and other stressors.

Janet Hashimoto, a water monitoring expert in EPA's Pacific Southwest Office, says the EMAP-type probabilistic monitoring approach provides baselines to track water quality trends. California took samples at 130 random sites, including San Francisco Bay. Arizona took samples at 47 perennial stream sites.

In 2007, Arizona, California, Nevada, the Navajo Nation, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe are participating in a nationwide lakes survey. EPA is also planning to assess the nation's large, non-wadeable rivers using the EMAP-type survey design in the near future.

Work has been underway since the 1980s to reduce pollutants in impaired waters, under EPA and the states' TMDL - Total Maximum Daily Loads - programs. TMDL studies identify the sources and amounts of a pollutant in a water body, and specify the reductions needed to restore the water body's designated beneficial uses - a first step toward actual pollution reductions. By late 2006, Pacific Southwest states and territories had completed more than 940 TMDLs (see Figure 2).

TMDL targets are often met by limiting discharges allowed by permits issued to facilities like factories and wastewater treatment plants. TMDLs also help EPA and states prioritize projects to reduce polluted runoff, or "nonpoint sources." EPA has issued grants to states and tribes for hundreds of nonpoint source projects in recent years.

Fig. 2. Number of TMDLs Completed in the Pacific Southwest Region
  AZ CA HI NV Outer Pacific All
1990 & prior 6 9 87 3 0 104
1991-1995 2 5 1 24 0 32
1996-2000 36 53 1 0 0 90
2001-2005 42 469 16 35 0 562
2006-present 2 160 0 0 3 155
TOTAL 87 686 105 62 3 943

No single solution can clean up the nation's thousands of impaired water bodies. But with the Clean Water Act and continued large-scale monitoring, EPA and states are taking a comprehensive approach to assessing our waterways and restoring them to ecological health.

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Beneath the Cities: Reducing Sewage Spills

Urban growth, pump station breakdowns, and the deterioration of old sewer pipes can all cause overflows.

Under the streets in every urban area, there's a potential health hazard: sewage collection pipes connecting to every home and building. When sewage flow is blocked below ground, it promptly rises to street level, and flows through street gutters and storm drains, exposing people to disease pathogens and polluting streams and beaches. Major sewage pipe breaks in Honolulu and Manhattan Beach, California, last year made headlines and forced the closure of nearby beaches.

While the big beach spills got the most publicity, more numerous sewage overflows into city streets are also a serious health hazard. In the 1990s, hundreds of these stinking overflows plagued Southern California every year. But today, there's good news: Los Angeles reports a 70% reduction, and San Diego claims a 77% reduction in the number of sewage spills in the past five years.

The pollutants in sewage include bacteria and viruses, nutrients, industrial wastes, and sometimes toxics. Many overflows occur during wet weather, when more water can enter the sewage pipes. During these maximum flows, sewers are most vulnerable to constrictions caused by insufficient pipe capacity, poor operation and maintenance, vandalism, and obstructions like grease from restaurants.

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Large cities must maintain hundreds of miles of sewer pipes to prevent spills from endangering public health.

EPA provided nearly $70 million in Clean Water State Revolving Fund capitalization grants in fiscal 2006 to fund local wastewater treatment and other water quality protection projects in the Pacific Southwest. EPA's most recent effort to reduce sewage spills in the region began in 2000, with a regionwide inventory of state spill records to find out where the biggest problems were. EPA staff worked with state agencies to collect data on the 214 major municipal systems, 33 minor systems, and 16 federal facilities in the Pacific Southwest that have water discharge permits.

Unfortunately, sewage spills are quite common. With several hundred spills occurring each year, it made sense for EPA to focus on the large spills and the cities and towns with recurring spill problems. EPA worked with sewer system managers to find the root causes of the spills. Urban growth, pipe failures, pump station breakdowns and deterioration of old sewer pipes are typical causes of overflows. The next step involved training and technical assistance on approaches for improving sewer system management and maintenance and to promote renewal of aging infrastructure.

After that, EPA and the state agencies initiated enforcement actions. Four Southern California coastal cities were ordered to reduce spills and develop infrastructure renewal plans. To resolve the Los Angeles and San Diego actions, EPA and the state's regional water boards required these cities to improve operation and maintenance, as well as rebuild some of their infrastructure. Los Angeles alone is in the midst of a $2 billion project to rebuild 488 miles of sewer, annually clean more than 40% of its 6,500-mile sewer system, better control restaurant grease discharges, and plan for future urban expansion.

California in 2006 adopted a Statewide Permit for publicly owned systems requiring them to develop management plans requiring maintenance, inspections, infrastructure rehabilitation, capacity assessment, rapid response to spills and public notification.

Over the next few years, EPA expects other communities in the Pacific Southwest to follow the lead of Los Angeles and San Diego. In 2007, the agency is continuing to collect comprehensive data on spills, and to negotiate spill-reducing agreements with more municipalities. The urban wastewater agencies are a crucial line of defense against epidemic diseases. Without them, urban life would be impossible.

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The Hanalei Watershed, Kauai, Hawaii

The State of Hawaii has always been known for its inviting beaches, but with a growing population of about 1.3 million people - and more than 7 million visitors a year - preventing pollution of coastal waters from sewage and polluted runoff is a bigger job than ever.

Even Kauai, with a far smaller population than the islands of Oahu, Maui, or Hawaii, has had its share of problems. But with the support of an EPA grant, the community near Kauai's Hanalei River and Hanalei Bay has taken a model approach to addressing these problems.

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Watershed protection activities on lands surrounding Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai help keep the bay's waters clean. (Photo: Jim Jacobi, U.S. Geological Survey)

In 2003, the Hanalei Watershed Hui received the first EPA Targeted Watershed Initiative Grant in the Pacific Southwest Region. Funds were used for a wide range of tasks, from coral reef preservation to improved water quality monitoring and assessing the watershed's biological resources. The hui (Hawaiian for "group") also used the grant to control polluted runoff by installing check dams to trap sediments flowing out of taro fields, and constructing fences to exclude cattle from sensitive riparian areas.

The hui has also focused on improving wastewater management, which is relevant to water quality challenges facing the entire state. Across the state of Hawaii, raw, untreated sewage is often discharged directly into the ground via cesspools. This method of waste disposal can contaminate streams, groundwater, and coastal waters with disease-causing pathogens and oxygen-depleting nitrates.

In 2005, a nationwide regulation took effect banning the use of Large Capacity Cesspools, which are defined as cesspools used by multiple residential dwellings or commercial establishments serving 20 or more persons on any day. Under the federal ban, Large Capacity Cesspool owners are installing safer septic systems or connecting to sewers served by wastewater treatment plants. In Hawaii, the state Department of Health plays an important role by ensuring that wastewater systems used to replace cesspools are properly designed. EPA has negotiated legally-binding agreements with private owners as well as state and local agencies to close and replace large cesspools. In 2006, the Hawaii Department of Education, the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management, and Costco's Kailua-Kona store signed such commitments with EPA.

In the Hanalei Watershed, the hui has prioritized and coordinated efforts to replace cesspools along the Hanalei River, Waipa Stream, and close to Hanalei Bay. Large cesspools are believed to be significant contributors to elevated nutrient and bacteria levels in these waterways. Kauai County is addressing several cesspools adjacent to Hanalei Beach. Four of these have been replaced as a result of a legal agreement with EPA. Another four in the Hanalei watershed have been upgraded to septic systems by the hui, using EPA grant money. Plus, the county is making improvements to a septic system at a restroom at the beach.

Beyond these short-term improvements, the hui is looking at a broader, long-term solution by exploring the feasibility of a centralized wastewater collection and treatment system for the town of Hanalei. This could be a model for other communities across the state of Hawaii.

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Turning Biosolids into Energy

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Diagram shows how biosolids from Los Angeles' sewage treatment plants will be injected into deep underground formations for conversion into methane and CO2, in a process patented by Terralog Technologies under a contract with the City of Los Angeles. The methane (natural gas) will be extracted and used as a clean fuel, while the CO2 will be permanently sequestered. Larger View

As the West Coast's largest city, Los Angeles does things on a bigger scale than anywhere else in the Pacific Southwest. The city's environmental challenges are bigger too, from the city's smog to its sewage spills and overflows (see story, p. 12). While the city's massive wastewater treatment facilities prevent sanitary wastes from polluting beaches and waterways, these pungent wastes - known as biosolids, or sludge - have to go somewhere.

In recent years, the city has been trucking 500 tons of the nutrient-rich biosolids each day to Kern County, where they're applied as fertilizer to farms growing non-food crops. But the trucks add to traffic and air pollution in the Los Angeles area, so the city is researching environmentally-friendly, low-cost alternatives to the practice. The city's planners came up with an innovative solution that not only gets rid of the waste without harming the environment, it may also generate a cash crop of clean fuel. The city intends to pump the sludge about a mile deep below the Terminal Island wastewater treatment plant in San Pedro Harbor, into a porous sandstone formation where high temperatures and pressure will break down the organic matter into its primary constituents, methane and carbon dioxide. Since both of these primary gases would have normally been released into the atmosphere, the sandstone provides a containment benefit.

After several years of technical and regulatory review, EPA, with the regional water board's endorsement, authorized the City of Los Angeles to proceed on an experimental basis. One goal of the project is to ensure that the carbon dioxide and other components remain sequestered in the deep formation, while tracking the subsurface movement and collection of methane gas - natural gas - that can be tapped as a source of clean, renewable energy.

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Terminal Island, in the upper left of this photo, will be the site of an innovative project to dispose of biosolids from wastewater treatment plants by deep underground injection (See Diagram).

The five-year experimental underground injection permit will allow the city to curb its current practice of trucking the biosolids hundreds of miles daily to Kern County - which generates diesel emissions from the trucks that carry it. When factoring both the trucking and land application, reductions of atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide will be realized. Given the many potential benefits of this project, the Los Angeles Times reported that it "could be an environmental trifecta" - good for clean air, clean water, and clean land.

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Marvin Young and Jon Merkle: Keeping Tap Water Safe To Drink

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L to R: Marvin Young and Jon Merkle

Jon Merkle was a young lawyer from Chicago when he came to work at EPA's Pacific Southwest Regional Office in San Francisco in March 1977. Marvin Young joined the agency in June 1980, after growing up in Honolulu, getting degrees from the University of Hawaii, and working for the Indian Health Service on the Navajo Nation.

Merkle spent the early years of his EPA career working on enforcement actions against suspected violators of the Clean Water Act, including industries that dumped toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into evaporation ponds in Henderson, Nevada, and sugar mills that dumped sugar cane waste into the ocean off the Big Island of Hawaii. Young spent several years of his early career cleaning up toxic sites on the Pacific islands of Guam and American Samoa.

Then they discovered their true calling: clean drinking water. This year, both men are retiring after working more than 20 years in EPA's regional Drinking Water Compliance and Enforcement section. At different times, Merkle and Young each served several years as supervisor of this group of about a dozen people, whose job is to ensure that drinking water is safe to drink throughout the Pacific Southwest. To do this, EPA works with the region's state, tribal, and territorial governments to oversee their use of EPA grant money to monitor the compliance of thousands of local water purveyors with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA can also take enforcement action directly. In the mid-1990s, water purveyors were required to start testing their water for lead and copper contamination. About two thousand in the Pacific Southwest ignored the new regulation, so Young and his section prepared and sent out more than 2,000 legal Notices of Violation. It was the regional Water Division's biggest enforcement effort in 20 years.

EPA Action Targeted Unsafe Canal Water

In 1991, EPA learned that in Imperial County, on the U.S.-Mexico Border, a local irrigation district's canals were the source of untreated tap water for about 10,000 people in the county. Tests showed the canal water was contaminated with bacteria.

Merkle drew up an EPA order to the district to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. While the district appealed, the county stopped issuing building permits, and some of the local residents blamed EPA. About 800 people showed up at a public meeting with EPA staff, and 49 of them spoke - all but one opposed to EPA's action.

The district appealed EPA's order in court, and won. Four years later, however, Congress changed the law. Once it took effect, the states of California and Arizona issued compliance orders to irrigation districts serving a total of 14,000 people. The districts finally complied by providing bottled water to their canal-tapping customers.

Getting Past Airport Security To Test Water on Planes

More recently, EPA needed data on whether water on airliners is safe to drink. Merkle and other EPA staff had to drag coolers filled with ice and sample jars through airports, wait at security checkpoints, and rush onto planes during the short time the planes were empty between flights - dozens of times.

Nationwide, samples showed that airplane tap water was often contaminated with bacteria. In 2005, EPA ordered U.S. airlines to comply with federal law by routinely testing their water, and notifying passengers any time contamination is found. Thanks to Merkle and other EPA staff, water on U.S. airliners will be held to the same strict health standards as tap water on the ground.

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