Six rivers, creeks listed for fecal contamination
Six local waterways have been officially recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being impaired by fecal bacteria, thus beginning what may be a lengthy assessment to identify and mitigate the sources of pollution.
“Clean water is vital to California’s public health, economy, recreation and wildlife — now more than ever during our extreme drought,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said in a statement. “EPA is working alongside the state as it continues the critical efforts needed to protect and restore California’s damaged waters.”
The six Humboldt County waterways that were added are part of California’s 40,000 miles of rivers, creeks and streams not meeting water quality goals imposed by the federal Clean Water Act, according to the EPA.
Under the act, states are required to monitor their waterways and submit a list of impaired waters to the EPA every few years. This most recent list approved by the EPA in late June was for waterways assessed through 2010.
In Humboldt County, the six waterways — Little River, Widow White Creek, Martin Slough, lower Elk River, Jolly Giant Creek and Campbell Creek — were added to the list due to high levels of fecal bacteria, such as E. coli, that were found during water quality tests conducted by Humboldt Baykeeper.
“A lot of people have ideas of where (the pollutants are) coming from,” Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt said. “Until we pinpoint those sources, we can’t identify solutions that will be effective.”
For Jolly Giant Creek in Arcata, a study conducted last year by Kalt found that the creek had 600 times the acceptable level of fecal indicator bacteria.
Kalt said some of the sources for this bacteria can come from pet droppings, agricultural runoff, septic failures, leaky pipes and transient camps.
However, the exact source for the six waterways have not been identified, which is where the next step in the process kicks in.
Now that the waterways are officially listed after nearly five years of vetting by various state and federal agencies, the nine regional water quality control boards throughout the state will begin working on mitigating the pollution issues for each listed waterway.
North Coast Regional Water Quality Board senior environmental scientist Rebecca Fitzgerald said this is normally achieved through a total maximum daily load assessment, or TMDL.
“A TMDL is basically a watershed assessment of what the pollutant is, where it is coming from, what time of the year it is having the biggest impact on beneficial uses and how much of that pollutant the water body can handle and still remain healthy,” Fitzgerald said.
Altogether, the TMDL is a lengthy process often taking years to complete — sometimes as long as 15 years. The State Water Resources Control Board — which oversees all the regional water boards — estimates that the assessment for all six waterways will be completed by 2025. Fitzgerald said that the process is “necessarily slow” so that each watershed and the communities that use them can be properly addressed.
“We find that in order to make positive change we need to have the community involved,” she said. “Otherwise it doesn’t work as well.”
Once the assessment is completed and the pollutant sources identified, the state can draw up an implementation plan to reduce the pollutant using federal and state funding to help pay for the necessary projects. Kalt said solutions could range from fencing off livestock from nearby streams, fixing old or leaking septic systems, or addressing homeless encampments.
However after the EPA updated its framework for Clean Water Act compliance in 2013, the state can now skip the TMDL process if it has already identified the source of the pollutant through proper scientific study. That’s exactly what Kalt is working to do at Little River and Janes Creek starting as early as next month. After raising funds through Humboldt Baykeeper and Coast Seafoods, the organization will begin a new sampling study.
Kalt said they will be sampling with a new method that will allow the research team to not only identify the source of the bacteria, but how much bacteria they are considering.
Kalt said she hopes to expand this pilot project to other waterways known to have bacterial problems such as Jacoby Creek and Freshwater Creek.
The oyster industry is particularly concerned about the polluted creeks as many of them run into Humboldt Bay where the oyster hatcheries are located.
“It’s a great example of how a healthy environment helps the economy stay strong as well,” Kalt said. “The two go hand in hand.”
This process may save years of time that would be used through the TMDL process, Kalt said, stating that the most recent list of impaired waters approved by the EPA last month was supposed to be for 2012 and was based on data submitted five years ago.
As to why the 2012 list was completed in 2015, Fitzgerald cited reduced funding at the regional water boards and data processing time.
The next time waters can be listed will be in 2018, with data solicitation beginning next year.
Along with the six waterways, the EPA also approved keeping five local beaches on the impaired list, which the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board had recommended for delisting.
The State Water Board was responsible for the change as it reassessed the beaches’ fecal bacteria count while taking into consideration the beneficial uses of shellfish harvesting at the beaches.
“That just tells me we need to do more sampling to figure out how many other beaches are having pollution problems,” Kalt said.
The full list of impaired waterways can be found online at http:// www.waterboards.ca.gov/ water_issues/programs/ tmdl/2012state_ir_reports/category5_report. shtml.