April 22, 2012
In 2000, Congress passed the BEACH Act, requiring the regular testing and monitoring of recreational water quality in order to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal and other diseases in swimmers. After the BEACH Act was signed into federal law, it became the federal government’s and its respective administrative agencies’ (like the EPA) responsibility to distribute funds amongst state and local governments to encourage regular monitoring. The act set a strict and consistent uniformity in national water quality monitoring that was nonexistent before its implementation in 2000—prior to that, some states including Washington and Wisconsin did not even have monitoring programs. However, difficult economic times in the U.S. has brought increasing pressure to tighten budgets, and beach monitoring is by no means exempt: the Environmental Protection Agency released its budget, which included a $10 million cut in grants that support frequent and widespread testing for fecal indicator bacteria at beaches, a cut sizeable enough to drastically reduce testing and force monitoring responsibilities almost solely on state and local governments. Though budgets are tight, continued federal oversight and funding for beach monitoring will be the most effective way to ensure that surfers and swimmers are safe.
For the last 12 years, the federal government has funded state and local governments to carry out various methods of water quality monitoring, the most common being measurement of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) levels. As of 2012, the number of beaches regularly being monitored for water-borne disease had climbed to 36,000; however, if federal grants are completely taken away, state and local governments might not have sufficient funds to maintain such a rigorous monitoring process. Currently, some states receive up to 80% of their money for beach monitoring from the federal government, and in coastal areas which depend on tourism to supplement this money the concern is that there will not be a reliable year-round source of support to continue testing.
The beach monitoring system currently in place is not without flaws. Many researchers argue that current testing is severely inadequate, and that in addition to reversing cuts, more money should be directed to research and data collection. Recent tests at beaches across the country have indicated that as much as 21% of tested water samples exceeded the maximum loads of FIB set forth by the EPA. The methods of data collection also need improvement: federal funds would help research about faster, more specific and more effective ways of determining water quality. An end to funding will cause research to go significantly slower or, completely stop.
On an environmental level, control of and standards for water testing set forth by several different entities rather than one organization will be very ineffective in keeping an even standard of water quality. Neighboring counties may wet different FIB load limits, or due to tight budgets some cities may choose to only choose to monitor high-traffic beaches, leaving wetland areas without testing. Ocean currents could transport FIB from areas of lower regulation or monitoring. Low-traffic but ecologically fragile ecosystems may not receive the monitoring they need and become severely contaminated without regulatory action.
With almost every aspect of government facing a tight budget squeeze, there is no easy solution to beach testing and funding; however, when the costs and benefits are weighed, federal funding will be vital to ensuring that every swimmer, surfer, and sun-bather in the United States can know that they are safe from water-born illnesses.
Britanny Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
March 19, 2012
Typically thought of as one of the safest regions in California, Ventura County is surprisingly home to several serious forms of environmental risk. To make matters worse, most of the county residents are not even aware of the potential dangers that surround them. Two prominent sources of environmental risk in Ventura County are the Halaco Superfund site and beach water quality.
Located in Oxnard, the Halaco superfund site has been slated as one of the worst superfund sites in the nation. With over 700,000 cubic yards of toxic metal waste remaining from Halaco Engineering’s previous smelter plant, the site has been a major threat for nearly five decades. It is known to contain smelter remnants from aluminum, magnesium, zinc, and other scrap metals on an 11-acre parcel as well as 26-acre region of deposited wastes. Bordering the Halaco site is the Ormond Beach wetlands, a vital ecosystem as it is one of the last wetlands left in Ventura County. Additionally, it is home to a number of threatened and endangered species such as the snowy plover and California least tern.
Not only does the site pose risk for surrounding wildlife, but also for local citizens. Halaco ceased utilization of the processing plant in 2004, but the future usage of the privately owned land is unknown to the EPA. Nearby neighborhoods have notoriously been known for high incidences of cancers and other diseases by locals, but no research has been done to prove links to the Halaco site. In addition, agricultural cropland neighbors the site, which may also pose potential risk if any of the toxins leach into the soil. Cleanup measures as well as efforts to keep the pollution on the site and out of Ventura have been attempted, but poorly executed.
The teeming agriculture in Ventura County is also cause for another concern: ocean water quality at the outlets of the Santa Clara River Watershed and the Ventura River Watershed. In the past, Ventura County has faced water quality problems related particularly to storm water runoff. During California’s rainy season, the water quality in Ventura County displays significant degradation, likely because “accumulated pesticides, herbicides, road runoff, bacteria and other assorted water pollutants are flushed out of watersheds and into coastal waters.” Water runoff during the wet season from the Halaco site is also a concern. In 2009, fisherman concerned over pollution in Ventura County pushed for new “no-fishing” spots to reduce the likelihood of catching fish with high levels of toxins, but their efforts were ignored.
In Heal the Bay’s 2010-2011 Annual Beach Report Card, 100% of Ventura County beaches tested received “A” grades during the dry season. However, during the wet season, that number dropped to 37%, and 42% of beaches received grades of C or D. No beaches received F grades during this past season, but Ventura County’s 7-year average indicates 13% of beaches receiving “F” grades in the rainy months. Unfortunately, as reported on March 8, $25,000 will be cut from Ventura’s $300,000 water quality testing budget if Obama’s 2013 budget proposal goes into effect. This would significantly reduce the frequency of testing in Ventura, which could put beachgoers at great risk of exposure. Several recent cleanup measures enacted by Ventura County, such as diversion of polluted water from some storm drains, were only possible because of federal funding, so without it, it’s reasonable to believe that future improvements will be more of a challenge.
Overall, Ventura County has its unique environmental risks, as any other area does. While they are certainly nothing to be ignored, they don’t make the area unlivable by any means. The best approach is to keep awareness of the problems in Ventura County at the forefront so that the citizens can take the proper measures to protect themselves, such as avoiding the beach after a rainstorm, and choosing to live or work further from Halaco. With adequate cleanup effort and prevention measures, Ventura County can ensure that it’s a welcoming place to be for years to come.
Sydney MacEwen and Dawnielle Tellez Alanna are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Beginning in earnest with the Clean Water Act of 1972, water quality and pollutant regulation have been of relatively prominent concern in the realm of environmental issues. Some major sources of water pollution — such as runoff from urban, industrial, and agricultural areas, and large oil spills— are extremely visible and have garnered much attention. As of late, however, scientists are realizing that that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations are inadequate, as they do not require water testing for at least one type of harmful contaminants: pharmaceuticals. According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, pharmaceuticals can be found in the drinking water of approximately 41 million Americans. Pharmaceutical contaminants come from both human and animal sources: most medications people ingest are broken down in the body, but the subsequent waste products and excess chemicals that the body does not metabolize are passed through urine. Hormones and antibiotics seem to be the most prevalent and most concerning at the moment, but as with other emerging contaminants, hardly anything is known about the long-term health and ecological impacts of prolonged exposure to these drugs. While some scientists say that trace levels of pharmaceuticals are too small to have any impact on the environment, there are already several examples of these toxins affecting organisms. Before any judgment is made on the severity of the issue, there needs to be more research more regulations on pharmaceutical dumping and water testing.
Pharmaceuticals were first discovered in drinking water in Europe about 10 years ago, when scientists detected levels of clofibric acid in groundwater near a German water treatment plant. Soon after this suspicious detection of this cholesterol-lowering drug in groundwater, scientists across Europe tested groundwater near drinking sources and wastewater treatment facilities, finding chemotherapy drugs, hormones, antibiotics, analgesics, and various other prescription drugs. Steroids and other hormones given to livestock are also a huge concern, as left-over chemicals are eliminated from animals in the same manner as humans: in fact, a recent study conducted by the U.S. Geologic Survey found that “steroids, nonprescription drugs, and insect repellent were the chemical groups most frequently detected” in water supplies tested. Unfortunately, sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove these chemicals, as they are not classified as dangerous contaminants by the EPA’s water quality regulations.
However, their effects are clearly a cause for concern. One study found that a group of male fish downstream from a feedlot had significantly lower levels of testosterone and were smaller than normal because of their exposure to steroids from the feedlot’s runoff. In another instance, scientists determined that small amounts of antidepressants that made their way into water caused some kinds of freshwater mussels to prematurely release their larvae—not necessarily detrimental to the mussels themselves, but greatly lowering the survival chances of future generations. But harm to aquatic organisms are not the only potential problem. If antibiotics are released into water sources, even in small doses, there is a possibility that pathogens in the water will be able to develop drug-resistant strains. Furthermore, there is the threat that pharmaceutical-contaminated water is being pumped into aquifers as part of artificial groundwater recharge, where chemicals can persist for years. And the problem is worldwide: in countries like India with less wastewater treatment infrastructure, huge amounts of pharmaceuticals are being dumped directly into rivers by chemical production plants.
While the concentration levels of pharmaceuticals are arguably low, the concrete examples of the direct negative impacts that pharmaceutical concentrations as low as one part per billion can have is a call to update regulations and drug disposal practices. As an emerging contaminant with a wide variety of sources, it’s difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for pharmaceutical reduction. A solution will have to start with regulations on wastewater treatment, especially in areas near animal feedlots and large cities, as well as education for the public about reducing pharmaceutical contamination at the source through proper disposal and use of medicine. There has been some evidence that the chlorine used to treat drinking water can react with pharmaceuticals to actually make them more toxic. Several methods of water treatment are being tested for pharmaceutical removal, including reverse osmosis and ozone and UV treatments. Some states are already taking matters into their own hands by passing legislature that requires the proper disposal of pharmaceuticals from sources like hospitals.
Though there may not be a convenient solution and though it will require advanced technology to test and identify sources and treatments, increasing our knowledge of pharmaceuticals as contaminants will be vital in protecting both ourselves and the environment from long-term and irreversible consequences. In order to characterize and solve the problem, we must first be able to understand the environmental risk pharmaceuticals pose.
Britanny Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
October 10, 2011
Throughout the early 1990’s, the Los Angeles River was named one of the United States most endangered rivers. The Los Angeles River, which begins in the San Fernando Valley, is 51 miles in length and flows into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP) proposes the restoration of the 32 miles of river that flows through the City of Los Angeles. The LARRMP, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1996, aims to outline a series of projects that will improve access, recreational value, water quality treatment, and ecological stability of the river. Although some parts of the plan, such as water treatment, are important for human and environmental reasons, the plan is too ambiguous, costly, and ambitious.
Due to Los Angeles’s desert climate, it would be unnecessary to implement many of the proposed projects, such as increased open space for parks and vegetation. The plan does not address where additional water to support these projects would come from, so it may require water from other sources to be diverted into the Los Angeles River, which would risk harming the biodiversity surrounding those outside sources. Also, river flow is very limited in some parts of its course, and even runs dry during some parts of the year.
The LARRMP, “which itself cost $3 million — calls for spending as much as $2 billion over the next half century” to implement. But even considering these high costs, the Ad Hoc Committee has only been able to secure $3 million in funding from the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In addition to this initial cost estimate, the project is bound to require even more money for other necessary components once the project is finished. These other components could include constantly monitoring water quality and maintaining parks. In order for the river to be a constant source of recreation for humans, the water must continually be scrupulously monitored and treated. This will cost more money, and funding is not necessarily secured yet. Considering the current economic crisis that California faces today, it is highly unlikely that the LA River Project will be considered a top priority because it does not provide the state and county with immediate benefits.
Furthermore, certain parts of this plan pose potential human health risks. The LA Times states, “the city also faces the challenge of improving the quality of the water. In summer, the river is a steady flow of mostly treated wastewater and runoff from lawn sprinklers,” revealing the poor condition of the river’s water. Today, very few people come in contact with most of the river. In fact, many stretches are fenced off. The new vision for the river is to have greater human interaction with the water (notice the children playing in the water in the imaginary scenario), and if the water were improperly cleaned, it would pose significant health risks.
It is highly likely that the river will eventually become contaminated and polluted over time due to the region’s large human population and industrial activity, thus trying to clean the river up now is unnecessary.
Within this master plan there are over 200 side projects that will require a large amount of local stewardship, time, resources, policy, and money. We believe that only the most essential parts should be carried out. Specifically, wastewater treatment is fundamental to maintaining the integrity of the river, but converting the riverbanks into a place for children to play is both impractical and unnecessary. While many of these projects in the plan address very important issues regarding the river, the City of Los Angeles should focus its efforts on developing and implementing the most crucial aspects of the plan, instead of the many frivolous and overly-ambitious details.
About the authors: Alyssa Dykman and Emily Lu are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.