The Pacific Southwest Region is a varied water landscape, from the Pacific Ocean and its tropical islands to the austere beauty of its arid inland deserts. The challenges of supplying drinking water and keeping waterways clean similarly vary across the region.
Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, infrastructure needs have lagged far behind explosive population and industrial growth. But with EPA’s assistance and binational cooperation, the New River, once known as the dirtiest in the West, is becoming significantly cleaner.
In urban areas that get slightly more rain, winter downpours dump huge amounts of litter from the streets into storm drains, creeks and beaches. Los Angeles has taken action to address this problem, and the San Francisco Bay Area is next.
In California’s less-populated far north, the Klamath River has been an area of enduring controversy between competing users dependent on its waters for food, jobs and energy. But over the last couple of years, cooperation among water users has made progress toward resolving the Klamath’s issues possible.
Even issues that once seemed intractable, such as the disposal of dredged materials from San Francisco Bay, have been resolved through such cooperation. The mud is still mud, but it’s no longer unwanted—it’s now a resource being used to restore tidal wetlands.
Wastewater Treatment Cleans Up Border Waterways
Throughout the United States, water quality improved dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the wastewater infrastructure improvements built to comply with it. But waters polluted by sewage continued to flow into the U.S. along the U.S.-Mexico Border, and as the Mexican border cities’ populations grew explosively in recent decades, the problem worsened. EPA and Mexican government agencies have been cooperating since 1995 to fund and build wastewater improvements, and the results have been dramatic.
These wastewater projects have benefited more than 635,000 people in Mexicali, Mexico.
The New River, flowing from Mexicali, Mexico, to California’s Salton Sea, is a case in point. It’s called the “New” River because it didn’t exist until the Colorado River broke a levee in 1905 and sent a stream of water into Mexico that turned north into the Imperial Valley, creating the Salton Sea. The levee breach was repaired, temporarily drying up this “river,” but later the channel was re-watered by sewage and irrigation runoff from Mexico. As Mexicali’s population exploded from 6,200 in 1920 to more than 850,000 today, the city’s wastewater infrastructure did not keep up, and, consequently, pollution in the New River continued to increase.
Work began in 1996 on renovation and repairs to Mexicali’s existing sewage pipes and treatment facilities, funded jointly by the U.S. and Mexico. The binational cooperation continued, upgrading and expanding the city’s treatment capacity over the next few years. While these efforts resulted in significant improvements, 10% of the New River’s flows still consisted of raw sewage.
In 2007, a new wastewater treatment plant located in the south of Mexicali was completed. The estimated 15 million gallons per day of sewage that once flowed untreated into the New River is now treated, disinfected and discharged into a series of irrigation canals that flow southward into the Rio Hardy, which is a tributary to the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
The removal of this untreated sewage from the New River has resulted in significant drops in bacteria levels as well as increased dissolved oxygen. Phosphates in the New River, which contribute to water quality impairments in the Salton Sea, have dropped by 25%.
Overall, EPA has contributed nearly half the $98.6 million cost of the Mexicali wastewater projects, with the Mexican government contributing the remaining funds. Already, these projects have benefited an estimated 635,000 people in Mexicali, and have resulted in the treatment of approximately 40 million gallons per day of sewage.
Construction is underway on similar projects elsewhere, such as the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant, due for completion in 2009. Not only do these investments result in improved water quality, they also create wastewater utilities in Mexico with the capacity to finance and construct future infrastructure projects. It’s a welcome trend for millions of people on both sides of the border.
Keeping Trash Out of Waterways:
LA Water Board Leads the Way
Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)
The TMDL process provides an assessment and planning framework for pollutant load reductions or other actions needed to attain water quality standards that protect aquatic life, drinking water, and other designated uses. TMDLs address all significant pollutants in a water body identified by the state as impaired.
In urban areas of the Pacific Southwest, millions of pounds of litter accumulate in streets and parking lots during the long dry season, then are flushed into storm drains by the first major rainstorm. Storm drains empty into streams, bays and harbors, and onto beaches, depositing loads of trash that are not just unsightly, but a serious health hazard to people, wildlife and fish.
Trash harms birds and marine life who consume small pieces, mistaking them for food. Some of the waste contains pathogens that sicken swimmers and surfers.
Last year, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for trash in the LA River Watershed. This landmark TMDL was originally adopted by the Regional Board in 2001 and EPA-approved in 2002, but litigation required the TMDL to be set aside until it was re-adopted in 2007. Following its full adoption through the water quality standards approval process, the wasteload allocations will be brought into the Los Angeles County stormwater permit.
In its support of the Los Angeles Regional Board, EPA made it clear that preparation of this TMDL, the nation’s first to regulate trash as a pollutant, was a key action to address this serious problem. Under the TMDL, cities, Los Angeles County and CalTrans prevent trash from reaching storm drains and fouling waterways and beaches. They are reducing trash discharges incrementally over nine years, with a goal of zero by 2016. The Regional Board documented the huge amounts of trash involved—more than 4.5 million pounds per year, which costs downstream cities hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to remove from their harbors and beaches.
Some cities in the Los Angeles area have already implemented the necessary measures, including what are known as ‘full capture systems’—devices that trap all particles retained by a 5 mm mesh screen and have a design treatment capacity of not less than the peak flow rate resulting from a one-year, one-hour storm in the subdrainage area. The Regional Board has certified various full-capture devices proposed by five cities, the County of Los Angeles, and Caltrans that local governments can use to achieve compliance.
These devices are most effective when not overwhelmed with trash and debris. We all do our part by keeping trash and other waste off the streets as cities continue public outreach, provide receptacles for trash, and routinely sweep streets and clean catch basins.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has held hearings on a proposal to include similar limits in its region-wide discharge permit for cities that discharge storm water (and trash) into the bay. Local environmental groups have documented the problem of trash-covered creeks that drain to the bay.
The regional water boards in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area have recognized that voluntary measures aren’t enough to keep trash out of the waterways. It’s a serious water pollution problem, and EPA supports the Regional Boards’ regulatory actions to make sure that every local jurisdiction participates in solving it.
Wetland Restoration Underway
Through SF Bay Harbor Dredging
In the 1990s, federal and state agencies struggled to find a better solution to disposing of mud dredged from San Francisco Bay to keep the navigation channels open. Disposing of the dredged materials elsewhere in the Bay had raised public concerns about impacts on water quality, fishing, and even navigation.
Environmental groups, ports, state agencies, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers developed a Long-Term Management Strategy (LTMS) for dredged materials to both reduce in-Bay disposal and encourage beneficial reuse of marine sediments to restore wetlands. Today this strategy is being implemented, as millions of tons of material from Oakland dredging recently began flowing through a pipeline that deposits it on 1,000 acres of Hamilton Field, a former military base in Marin County.
As the Hamilton wetland restoration began, there were already two other privately-operated projects making beneficial use of dredged materials. The Montezuma Wetlands project is restoring a large wetland adjacent to Suisun Bay, and Carneros River Ranch is piping dredged material from a small harbor on San Pablo Bay onto nearly a square mile of fields to grow crops.
Dozens of square miles of hayfields in the North Bay were originally sea-level salt marshes. Salt marshes are critical to maintaining a healthy ecosystem for fish, migrating birds and other wildlife. During more than a century of being diked, dried and cultivated, the land surface sank. Breaching the dikes alone would simply create a saltwater pond too deep for wetland vegetation to grow. So dredged material—millions of tons of it—is being deposited to raise the level of these areas as part of an overall restoration plan.
Oakland is now deepening its harbor to 50 feet to handle larger ships, removing 12 million cubic yards of dredged materials in the process. One quarter of that is being piped now to Hamilton Field, another three million has been deposited at the Montezuma Wetlands, and the remaining six million was used to create better fish and bird habitat in the bay close to Oakland.
These projects are just the beginning for beneficial reuse of dredged material. The LTMS agencies are considering options to further reduce in-Bay disposal by getting materials to Hamilton Field faster and cheaper. EPA and other agencies are also working on using dredged materials to build up levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Maintaining this levee system is critical—if the levees break, salt water from the Bay will rush into the Delta, harming habitat for sensitive fish species. Further, salt water would intrude into the state and federal aqueducts, making the water undrinkable—a disaster for the more than 20 million Californians who depend on imported water supplies.
In the 1990s, the question was how to get rid of dredged materials. Today, it’s a valued resource for restoring wetlands and protecting Delta farms and water quality.
Klamath River Tribes, Anglers,
Farmers, Agencies Work Together
Many Californians may not be familiar with the beautiful Klamath River in northern California and southern Oregon. But for those who live in the forested Klamath Basin, the river and its tributaries are all-important in providing the essentials of life: water, food and jobs. The Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribes have thrived on the river’s salmon for thousands of years. Upstream farmers depend on the Klamath’s water for their livelihoods, and PacifiCorp’s Klamath Hydroelectric Project dams have generated electric power in the region since the 1950s.
With competing demands on the river’s water, and varying amounts of snowmelt feeding it each year, it’s not easy to find the delicate balance that meets the needs of fish, farms, people and energy demand. In 2001, farms went dry when water diversions were stopped to protect endangered fish. The following year, crops were irrigated, but the river flow fell to such a low level it triggered a massive die-off of salmon from heat and disease. Contentious arguments took place between farmers and fishermen, with both sides seeing water allocation as a paramount issue to resolve.
After the salmon die-off, the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribes called for greater EPA involvement in restoring the river’s water quality and fisheries. Since 2002, EPA has been working with Klamath Basin tribes, as well as other Klamath water users and state and federal agencies. One key strategy EPA has led is the coordinated development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs; see box on p. 12) to ensure the Klamath meets each state’s water quality standards for temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nutrients.
These analyses are interlinked and crucial to fish. When temperature and nutrients get too high, algae blooms; once algae dies, dissolved oxygen plummets, killing fish. Oregon and California are expected to issue their TMDLs for the Klamath in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In addition, the Hoopa Valley Tribe adopted, and EPA recently approved, tribal water quality standards for the Klamath River. Though the tribe’s reservation includes just a short stretch of the river, the standards help protect fish and water quality both upstream and downstream.
Temperature is particularly important in the Klamath, where a toxic strain of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) grows. It’s virulent enough to cause liver failure and death if a person or animal drinks enough water tainted by it. Touching it can cause rashes. EPA has worked with state, local and tribal entities to warn people to avoid contact with the water around the Iron Gate and Copco Reservoirs during the algae bloom season in summer.
Meanwhile, EPA grants are supporting improved water monitoring and watershed restoration work. A $275,000 EPA grant to California is funding the Klamath Watershed Institute’s effort to develop a strategic and coordinated water quality monitoring program for the river, and to make the data accessible. A $900,000 EPA grant is funding watershed restoration efforts by Trinity County, the Yurok Tribe, and a local resource conservation district.
A sign of progress on water use issues is the January 2008 Restoration Agreement between the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, fishermen, farmers, counties and resource agencies regarding basin restoration, water allocation and the removal of four hydroelectric dams which block migrating fish. That agreement is contingent on reaching agreement with PacifiCorp on removal of their four lower dams on the Klamath, which are being considered for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The level of cooperation among Klamath River stakeholders over the last three years is unprecedented. There’s great long-term potential for cooperative water use, water quality improvements, and restoring salmon and steelhead trout to this beautiful watershed.
Catherine Kuhlman: Protecting California Waters
Inspired leadership at the federal and state levels helps ensure cleaner inland waters
Catherine Kuhlman is retiring—but not really. After more than 25 years of federal service, she is leaving EPA, but continuing to serve the environment. In April 2008, she becomes Executive Officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency based in Santa Rosa, Calif.
How she got there is an interesting story. Catherine “Cat” Kuhlman grew up in Laguna Beach, Orange County, Calif., where she spent entire summers at the beach, playing volleyball, swimming, surfing, skim-boarding, snorkeling, scuba diving and, at her mother’s insistence, reading a large pile of classic books. “I am a water animal,” she says, “grew up at the beach—pulled by the lure and mystery of water.”
She came to Northern California to study biology at Sonoma State University, just a few miles from Santa Rosa. After graduating in the late 1970s, she took a job as a secretary in EPA’s Water Division—because that was the only job open at EPA’s regional office at the time.
Cat’s abilities were soon recognized, and she was promoted to Environmental Scientist, and then manager. She found her mission in “policy work, figuring out how to apply the Clean Water Act to arid environments, working with the states and tribes to restore and protect watersheds.”
"It’s amazing and humbling to drive north, crossing rivers and streams, knowing it is your job to protect and restore them," says Kuhlman. "When the rivers look dirty, it’s like a punch in the stomach. When they are clean, I am elated.
“My time at EPA has been great, but now it’s on to more complex adventures beyond the ‘Redwood Curtain,’” she says. For a water animal, it’s natural habitat.
Over the years, Cat had a chance to work on all of EPA’s major water programs. One of her biggest successes was helping California adopt water quality criteria for toxic pollutants in the 1990s. The state of California had just had its criteria stricken down in court—a critical blow to protecting water quality. The criteria were the basis for the state’s Inland Surface Waters Plan, a set of policies and standards for applying the Clean Water Act in every river and stream in California.
The State Water Resources Control Board asked for EPA’s assistance, and Cat’s branch of the Water Division was tasked with coming up with a set of federal criteria that could replace the state’s plan. Working with EPA colleagues Diane Fleck, Matt Mitchell, Phil Woods and Ann Nutt over several years, they developed the criteria, which are still used as the basis for discharge permits on California’s inland waters.
Cat was also instrumental in developing policies to implement the Clean Water Act with regard to ephemeral streams and washes—waterways in vast expanses of the western states that are dry
most of the year, flowing only after rains. These EPA policies, still in effect, held the line against critics who wanted to amend the Clean Water Act to exempt such waterways entirely.
Five years ago, Cat took an IPA (Intergovernmental Personnel Assignment) as Executive Officer of the North Coast Regional Board, which does the ground-level work of enforcing the federal Clean Water Act and a similar state law. She found it to be “an intriguing set of challenges” where she was able to apply lessons learned at EPA, working with states, tribes and others.
The North Coast is California’s wettest area, with rivers like the Russian, Smith, Eel, Mad, Trinity, Klamath and Van Duzen. Most of it is covered with redwoods and other forests. Logging is a major industry here, with heavy impacts on these rivers and their tributaries—primarily, sedimentation from heavily-logged slopes and unmaintained roads. She counts as one for her great achievements issuing the first water quality permit for timber harvesting in the West, and issuing a pair of very controversial permits to Pacific Lumber Company that have slowed the rate at which they were cutting redwood trees in the Elk River and Freshwater Creek watersheds.