August 2, 2012
By Jordan Smith-Newman
Runoff is most commonly thought of as the water flow that occurs when soil is saturated to full capacity and excess water from rain or other sources flows over the land into streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, and oceans, carrying with it contaminants, nutrients, and any other contents the water picks up. It might therefore be easy to believe that hazardous runoff comes mainly from farms and deforested areas and thus from sources and practices that the average citizen in Los Angeles cannot change. In another sense, however, everyone in fact contributes to polluting runoff in one way or. To see how, we need to get down to the nitty-gritty, so to speak, and consider two source pollutants, one nonpoint and one point, that people might not readily think about: dog feces and human waste. Whether washed from streets and sidewalks into storm drains or directly disposed of onto beaches, dog feces greatly affect coastal cleanliness and safety. Similarly, liquid discharged from homes—sinks and flushed toilets—and then emitted from a water treatment plant can have damaging effects on coastal waters. While important governmental regulations exist to control these two kinds of runoff, individuals can take action on their own to reduce their negative impact on coastal waters.
The majority of waste from point and nonpoint sources ends up in the same place, namely the ocean. However, the difference is where the waste comes from. A point source is one that is specifically identifiable whereas a nonpoint source pollutant comes from many diffuse locations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Pollution Prevention Management Measure in 1993 that specifically addresses nonpoint source pollution. One subsection concentrates specifically on “improper disposal of pet excrement.” Not only does the waste decay to cause anoxic waters and create excess nutrient algal blooms, but it is also a concern for human health. Children and adults who play and swim in areas near runoffs “are most at risk for infection from some of the bacteria and parasites found in pet waste.” Although the 1972 Clean Water Act established a structure for specifically regulating the discharge of point source pollutants, similar hazards still exist. Based on a study done on the Columbia River Basin in Washington and Oregon, traces of two pharmaceuticals were detected: carbamazepine, a prescription drug for bipolar disorder and epilepsy, and diphenhydramine, a common ingredient in over-the-counter allergy relief medicines.
Although the government has taken actions to study and reduce pollution from both point and nonpoint sources, it is clear that much more needs to be done. I would argue that education programs to raise awareness and actions to decrease impacts of improper disposal on a more local level are necessary to improve water quality and safety. Individuals must become more aware of their waste, both biological and physical. It might be a natural tendency not to want to think about such unpleasant facts of life as excrement and the dirty water that goes down our drains. But precisely by getting people to become aware that the most mundane biological products cause great harm to the environment could lead people to take more control over a very common part of their lives.
 Pollution Prevention Management Measure. Environmental Protection Agency.
Carolyn Johnson. Pet Waste and Water Quality.
 Scientific Investigation Report 2012. U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. <http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2012/5068/pdf/sir20125068.pdf>
About the author: Jordan Smith-Newman is a senior in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She has a strong interest in marine and coastal environmental policy. After she completes her BS in Environmental Studies she plans to pursue a degree in Environmental Law.
By Richelle Tanner
Whenever another high school from the Seattle region won a jazz festival, our pristine drinking water was always given full credit. Often when an outstanding athlete, musician, or scholar hails from a region already plentiful in their kind, people joke that there must be something in the water supply that gives them a specific advantage in their field. While the validity of this is debatable, there is no question whether certain areas are more susceptible to water contamination. Even after standardized treatment of wastewater, pharmaceuticals still persist and are released into the ecosystem, whether it be into the ocean or via fertilization of crops.
Currently there are no EPA regulations on levels of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in drinking water or wastewater, even though trace levels have been detected for the last forty years. Wastewater must undergo primary and secondary treatment in order to be released, with some receiving tertiary treatment for use as “gray water”. However, these treatments are not fully comprehensive, and some minor contaminants remain in the water after all treatments have been administered. One particular PPCP in question is ethynylestradiol, which is commonly used as an oral contraceptive. It is known to have had “hermaphroditic” impacts on male fish, essentially “feminizing” them – yet another anthropogenic effect on the ecosystem. It is only a matter of time before the impacts of PPCPs’ presence in the water is apparent in humans as well. Even though there are not significant amounts of PPCPs in drinking water supplies (the maximum concentration ever found of meprobamate, a PPCP, is 0.000042 mg/L — in order to receive a single therapeutic dose, one would have to drink >4.7 million liters of water in one day), the potential for rising concentrations is significant.
Using the Hyperion Water Treatment Plant as an example, the wastewater treated there ends up in the ocean, in crop fields, and in industrial settings. Although the water is not directly used by humans, the implications of PPCPs on the ecosystem and humans’ place in said ecosystem (not to say that humans are more important) are inevitable and could already have negative consequences that are not yet known. The EPA has jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to regulate the presence of PPCPs in water supplies, and similar to other pressing environmental issues, it needs to be addressed before it becomes a noticeable concern. Pushed aside any longer, and maybe the saying, “it must be something in the water”, will hold true — at least for trending genetic mutation or abnormalities, that is.
About the author: Richelle Tanner is a sophomore in the USC Dornsife College and the USC Thornton School of Music pursuing a double degree in Environmental Studies, B.S., and Jazz Studies, B.M.. She intends to pursue graduate studies in Marine Science and originally hails from Seattle, WA.
By Will Getz
It’s early August; the migratory Sockeye salmon of Bristol Bay Alaska are in the process of finishing their annual spawning season. The Sockeye spend most of their lives in the saltwater seas of the Northern Pacific outside of Bristol Bay, but migrate towards the freshwater streams they were spawned in to reproduce at the end of their lifecycle. This seemingly insignificant event occurring inland from the Bay is central to the existence of the largest Sockeye population in the world, which not only provides for a productive sustainable regional fishing industry (valued at some $2.2 billion), but also serves as the primary component of the region’s food webs (Rosenthal 2012).
Bristol Bay is connected to an inland region hosting a large set of lakes, rivers, and wetlands linked together by an elaborate groundwater system consisting of many hyporheic regions where surface water and groundwater are constantly exchanged. For the anadromous Sockeye, the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers stemming from flows north of Lake Iliamna serve as particularly vital spawning grounds (Lewis 2012). Any disruption to these rivers from impacts in the larger valley watershed could be devastating to the Sockeye populations and those dependent upon them.
A proposed mining consortium known as Pebble Mine threatens this pristine and biodiverse bay and valley. The lands north of Lake Iliamna are estimated to contain over eighty billion pounds of copper, gold, and molybdenum that in an increasingly demanding global market could be worth as much as $200 billion. The Pebble Mine project will consist of an open pit mine a mile deep by three miles wide, making it the largest open pit mine in the world. This tremendous man-made chasm will further require the construction of several commensurate tailings dams up the valley to store ten billion tons of mining waste from excavation (Lewis 2012). These enormous engineering projects would completely and permanently alter the immediate ecosystem, while carrying an even more devastating environmental impact for the entire region.
The great concern is the mine’s highland position and adjacency to the watershed. The rivers and Lake Iliamna lie in a lowland position relative to the proposed mine site and tailings dams. Figure 1 depicts the topography of this inland region along the bay. Any kind of leakage from either of the sites could quite quickly and easily contaminate the lake, rivers, and groundwater system that lie downstream. A central concern in this eventuality derives from the fact that the mine’s primary ore is copper. Copper and its compounds (such as copper sulfates) can be lethal to fish and aquatic organisms in large quantities, but even exposure to small quantities (as small as two parts per billion (2ppb) can be disruptive to development of fish species like the salmon, however the effects of these small concentrations are far more subtle and often invisible to human observation (Johnson 2007). In order to spawn at the end of its life cycle, a Sockeye uses chemosensory function (sense of smell) to relocate the stream in which it was spawned. Several studies show that small particulate copper can inhibit the salmon’s sensory function preventing them from being able to avoid predators, find prey, and find spawning grounds (Brown 2007, Johnson 2007).
The primary ores being mined are copper sulfides (CuS, Cu2S). The tailings dams for the Pebble Mine project will include great quantities of metal sulfides such as Chalcopyrite (CuFeS2) that when exposed to oxygen and water oxidize to form acidic bisulfate (HSO4-) and dilute concentrations of sulfuric acid (H2SO4). This acid has the capability to break down other sulfide minerals in wastes into heavy metal ions such as lead and cadmium that become suspended in solution and carried with water flows (Druschel 2004). These tailings dams and water-saturated parts of the mining site thus will contain massive amounts of hazardous acidic heavy metal solutions. Given the great interchange of ground and surface water in this region, any amount of seepage of these solutions into streams from these sites would be damaging to not only the Sockeye spawning regions, but also the entire ecosystem (Lewis 2012). Prevention of such seepage from these dams will require monitoring and remediation for thousands of years.
The Berkeley Pit copper mine in Butte, Montana is an excellent forecaster of the perpetual remediation needed. It was closed in 1982, and the main pit became flooded with what is now cupric acidic water (pH ~ 2.5) from surrounding groundwater aquifers to over half its depth of 1500 ft. The water level is constantly rising gradually and needs to be constantly monitored for seepage and pumped out to avoid overflow into the Clarke Fork River, which is the water supply for a number of surrounding communities and ecosystems (Davis 1988). The already extreme demands of vigilance at Berkeley call into question the feasibility of a perpetual remediation at Pebble, which is projected to be the largest open pit mining operation in the world.
Beyond this daunting requirement and despite repeated assurances by Pebble’s planners regarding their ability to maintain tailing dam integrity and control seepage runoff, there remain several variable risks that lie outside of the mining operation’s control. Bristol Bay has strong annual rainstorms, which could flood mining sites and carry acidic runoff throughout the watershed into the bay. The mine’s position along the Lake Clarke fault also gives cause for concern about the integrity of the tailings dam in the event of a large earthquake as well as continual seismic activity. Throughout the world, tailings dam failure occurs frequently, with at least one incident occurring every year (Frontline 2012). Technological and engineering improvements have not sufficiently addressed the risks in Bristol Bay. Since even slight seepage from these dams into the ecosystem, could prove highly damaging, the collapse of the tailings dam containing billions of tons of waste would be catastrophic for the entire region.
In May, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created an initial assessment of the Pebble Mine citing major loss of fish habitat (54 miles to 87.9 miles of critical streams and up to 6.7 square miles of wetlands), high probability of pipeline failure, tailings dam failure, and acid mine drainage as major hazards (Rosenthal 2012). This initial report is the start of a long process to determine whether or not to approve mine construction (Rosenthal 2012). Unfortunately, these dire warnings might have little sway over the final decision on this project. There has already been a considerable backlash to the EPA’s involvement in this issue from pro-development Alaskan communities championing the mine’s potential financial benefits. Historically, mines seeking a permit in Alaska’s history have always succeeded, and, in the case of Pebble, in several years that record might well continue (Lewis 2012).
Moving forward with this project, however, promises to be a dangerous experiment, for never has a mining project been developed to coexist in such a complex water ecosystem, much less one of this immensity. With the survival of one of the last great populations of Sockeye and the attendant health of an entire regional ecosystem at stake, Bristol Bay is truly not the right place to be rolling environmental dice.
Brown, A. (2007, March 16). Copper increases predation risk to salmon, other fish | Extension and Agricultural Research News. Home | Oregon State University Extension Service. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from http://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/release/2007/03/copper-increases-predation-risk-salmon-other-fish
Davis, A., & Ashenberg, D. (1988). The aqueous geochemistry of the BerkeleyPit, Butte, Montana, U.S.A.. Applied Geochemistry, 4(1), 23-36. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from the Science Direct database.
Druschel, G., Baker, B., Gihring, T., & Banfield, J. (2004). Acid mine drainage biogeochemistry at Iron Mountain, California. Geochemical Transactions, 5(2), 13-32.
Environmental Protection Agency (2012) An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska Executive Summary (EPA Publication No. 910-R-12-004d) Rockville, MD: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 31, 2012 from: http://www.epa.gov/ncea/pdfs/bristolbay/bristol_bay_assessment_erd_2012_exec_summary.pdf
Frontline. (2012, July 30). Tailings Dams: Where Mining Waste is Stored Forever | Alaska Gold | FRONTLINE | PBS. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved July 31, 2012, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/environment/alaska-gold/tailings-dams-where-mining-waste-is-stored-forever/
Johnson, A., E. Carew, et al. (2007). “The effects of copper on the morphological and functional development of zebrafish embryos.” Aquatic Toxicology 84(4): 431-438.
Lewis, K. (prod.) (2012, July 24th). Alaska Gold [Television series episode]. In Frontline. WGBH Boston: PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/alaska-gold/
Rosenthal, A. (ed.) (2012, June 4). A Threat to Bristol Bay. The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/opinion/a-threat-to-bristol-bay.html
About the Author: Will Getz is a junior working toward dual degrees, a BS in Chemistry, and a BA in East Asian Languages in Cultures with a minor in Environmental Studies in the Dornsife School of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
By Roxi Aslan
The history of drinking water is one that is very interesting. As water is fundamental for human life, obtaining drinkable water has always been a goal of any civilization that has been in existence. Originally, humans obtained water from their nearby rivers and springs but as populations expanded, this goal became a greater challenge. These challenges had to be met with great engineering feats such as the first aqueducts and cisterns that the Romans built in regions such as Istanbul and Nimes. However, once the water was obtained, it was not until the 11th century that a physician began to understand the concept of water-borne pathogens and therefore that water should be altered before drinking it in order to prevent illness.
With technological advancements developing very slowly, thousands of people died from sicknesses caused by filthy drinking water and only a century after the microscope was created in 1595 and microbes were first discovered were we able to begin to improve human health. With the subsequent development of sand filtration methods and chlorine treatments that eliminate water-borne pathogens and therefore diseases, water quality has now become an important part of state and federal policies. Today, Los Angeles has the world’s largest filtration plant in which ozone is used as a disinfectant to treat up to 600 million gallons of water per day.
However, drinking water issues still remain. As populations continue to expand and we engage in practices such as obtaining our food from confined animal feeding operations, contamination of our drinking water supply with chemicals from fertilizers and pathogens from sewage has been growing. With crowded conditions in a city like Los Angeles, failures and spills at treatment facilities are likely. At the Hyperion wastewater treatment plant that we visited this week, it wasn’t until 1980 and $1.4 billion dollars later that we were able to stop the discharging of 25 million pounds of wastewater solids per month into the Santa Monica Bay. For less-developed countries, such funding is not possible.
Therefore, focus on source water protection is an effective and necessary way of reducing these high treatment costs and ensuring safe drinking water. Only fairly recently though has this concept been put into action through policies such as the United States’ Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996. After events like the 1996 contamination of drinking water supplies in Santa Monica with MTBE, a gasoline additive that causes health problems, actions have been developed to reduce potential sources of contamination and the use of such chemicals have been greatly decreased. While measures that have been taken to protect our source water have been successful, pollution and contamination will have to be constantly monitored as our populations continue to grow even more.
About the author: Roxi Aslan is a junior biology major with a minor in environmental studies in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Roxi plans on pursuing a career in marine biomedical research and hopes to use her science diving skills acquired in a Guam and Palau field course to do so.
By Rabia Kaiser
We humans are today facing many problems of epic proportions, problems that we created, problems that threaten our very survival. And yet we continue to try and solve these problems with the same thinking that created them. A prime example of our stubborn ignorance can be seen in our growing desperation to find new sources of fresh water for an ever-expanding population, 1.4 billion of whom lack access to safe, clean drinking water1. One popular method is the use of dams.
Humans have been building dams since 3000 B.C.2 We have even been using rivers as power sources for grinding grain since the ancient Greeks. It is only lately, however, that we have begun destroying ecosystems in our quest to create an endless supply of fresh water and electricity. The structure of a hydroelectric dam is quite simple: damming a river creates a buildup of potential energy behind the structure. A turbine is inserted in the path of the river, and the kinetic energy of the flowing water causes the turbine to spin, powering a generator that connects to the power grid. Some may argue, the water is not wasted, the process produces no harmful emissions, and we humans get both safe drinking water and electric power for our various needs.
I disagree, however. I believe there are substantial environmental effects that should not only be considered but should be enough to halt any plans for the construction of a dam unless it is absolutely necessary. First, the construction of the dam itself brings in massive amounts of environmental destruction as roads are built to access the site. Human and mechanical disturbance of the surrounding area is bad enough, but these crews bring with them vehicles which produce airborne emissions that may include, among other things: soot, sulfur, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and heavy metals3.
This material not only affects the surrounding area but can also be swept away downstream to have detrimental effects miles away. Then the actual construction of the dam takes massive amounts of fossil fuels and non-renewable building materials, and may produce large amounts of excavated dirt or other debris, some of which may escape into the air as particulate matter, and some of which may be caught in runoff from the now altered area. Once the dam is up, flooding of the ecosystem will occur, possible forever eliminating the ecology that might have previously existed for thousands of years and any ecosystem services it may have provided. Depending on the area, a reservoir may lose more of its water to evaporation than the total amount of annual rainfall in the region4. Not very efficient, especially when that water is now being deprived to ecosystems downstream.
Speaking of deprivation, a dam also means the cessation of the flow of vital sediments and nutrients to other habitats along a river’s course, which means that everything—from the ecosystem behind the dam, to the beach where the river once deposited its bed load, replenishing the sediment—is completely altered. And to top all of that off, unlike solar, wind, or tidal energy, which can be counted on to last for decades if not centuries, hydropower can only last as long as it takes for a dam to silt up—that is, to become so blocked by the built-up sediments of the river that no more water can pass through. This means that in as little as ten years, all that remain of your once-magnificent power source is a huge valley of sediments supported by a now-useless concrete wall.
There is no question that humans need both more water and more power. It would be absurd to ask the world’s population to go back to living like cavemen. However, dams are the answer for neither predicament. We must find alternatives…or, we must ask ourselves whether the energy we get from a hydroelectric dam is truly “clean”, truly worth it; whether we are willing to bear the costs such a drastic transformation will bring to all who depend on a river’s life-giving waters.
- Food and Water Watch, http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/interesting-water-facts/
- S.W. Helms: “Jawa Excavations 1975. Third Preliminary Report”, Levant 1977
- Green Living Tips, http://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/269/1/Car-exhaust-chemicals.html
- Edward Goldsmith, http://www.edwardgoldsmith.org/1016/water-losses-exceeding-gains/
About the author: Rabia Kaiser is an Environmental Studies major who will begin her junior year at USC this fall. She is interested in all aspects of her major, but is especially concerned with conservation and habitat protection. She enjoys hiking and photography and playing with her kitten, Max.