Tuesday, December 29, 2009

EPA Video Contest!

Our Planet, Our Stuff, Our Choice Video Competition

Win up to $2500. Open to anyone 13 or older.

- Buying Green
- Recycling
- Reducing Your Consumption
- Composting

Submit your 30 or 60 second video between December 16th and February 16th 2010.

Contest details available on EPA's website.

Monday, December 7, 2009

BWTF, More Than Just Water Tests

In addition to providing valuable water quality information, the Newport Aquarium Youth Volunteers who perform the lab work for the Newort Chapter's water testing program are also committed to improving their local beach conditions. Each year, this youth group takes on a related project and/or water quality campaign. Last year they promoted Ocean Friendly Gardens on the Aquarium grounds. More here.

The Youth Volunteers have recently completed their planning session for this year's water testing BWTF program. I encourage any water testing program to go through a similar exercise to see how your volunteers can contribute to improving your favorite beaches.

A Strategy for Success

At Surfrider, we realize all of our projects, programs and campaigns come together with carefully thought out strategic plans. Being successful in our efforts relies on this type of planning and today, I had the pleasure of working with the youth volunteers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in such a process. This year marks our third annual Newport Chapter of Surfrider Foundation/Aquarium Youth Volunteer winter water quality project. We spent the better part of 2 hours today mapping out the strategies and tactics surrounding the kids' project goals and objectives. Nothing satisfies me more than seeing these kids succeed and using the necessary planning tools to get themselves there. Self-motivated - check, plan in place - check, victory influencing city council - check back again this spring! And just what are these kids up to you might ask. Click here for a hint from a similar project in Port Orford.

Newport Chapter Continuing to Push for Clean Water

The Newport Chapter has been using their water testing program very successfully to continue to keep awareness of pollution issues in their watershed elevated in their city. While improvements have been seen at their local beach, some problems still persist and Surfrider keeps asking for the City and her residents to do more to solve these issues. Two postings below taken from the Surfrider Oregon Blog.

Not Again Newport...we have come so far!

After nearly 2 years of sourcing out sewer misconnections, improving stormwater codes/best management practices, improving notification/postings and cutting down the beach advisories, we're back to a challenging point with sewer overflows at Nye Beach. It seems large volumes of stormwater have been infiltrating the sewer lines (those same lines we thought were inspected and had some pipe-bursting/relining done), resulting in some serious sewage overflows at Nye Beach. The local Blue Water Task Force has been getting readings off the chart, some of the highest we've seen at Nye Beach in our 10 years of testing. What can you do? Demand clean water, join us at the next council meeting (November 23). Note the picture at right and the nebulous "contaminated with...". We can do better!

Sewage at Nye Beach, Where do I come in?

The What
Over the course of the past 3 years, the Newport Chapter of Surfrider Foundation has been working with the City of Newport to improve the Nye beach stormwater and sewer issues that have resulted in high bacteria counts at Nye Beach. While the sewage issues still occur (although less frequent...insert happy face), on occassions of intense rain, these issues may be linked to several problems as close as your backyard. And to that extent, the City of Newport issued some sixty letters to homeowners in the City of Newport to make some improvements for improper connections. Now let's break these issues down a little:

The Why
Bottom line, too much rain in the sewer. You see, these sewer overflows occur because the Nye Beach pump station can only take so much sewage at one time. While the pump station is well equipped to handle our sewer demands and multiple upgrades have occurred over the past few years, it can't handle excessive volumes of rainwater that enter the system. Now wait a second you may say, I thought we had separate systems for rain runoff (stormwater) and sewer lines! And yes, you are correct. The problem is there are places where rainwater can get into the sewer lines...some of them may be at yourhouse. That's right, some of the homes here in Newport have their downspouts from their homes connected to the sewer lines sending high volumes of rain to the system. Of course there are other places like manhole covers for sewer lines and old joints where saturated ground water can make it's way into the sewer system.

The You
The Newport Chapter of Surfrider Foundation is working with the City of Newport on strategies for improving infrastructure and sourcing other non-point sources (which will cover in a future post...as this also involves you). To date the City has been doing extensive source water quality testing up the urban watershed and smoke testing for proper sewer line connections. These tests have found sewer lines connected to storm drain lines sending untreated sewage directly to the beach through the stormwater outfall. They've found homes where small animals being raised are polluting Nye creek with there feces. They've found excessive dump spots for animal and human feces (literally bucket fulls!). And, they've found many homes with improper downspout connections to sewer lines sending rainwater into the sewer system. So, here's where you fit in, from simple to complex:

A) Engage with the Newport Chapter - come to a meeting, help with water quality monitoring...lots of opportunity, figure out what's right for you

B) Check your downspouts - make sure they are properly connected to the stormdrain (not the sewer line!) or if feasible, look into a rain barrel or downspout disconnection and rain garden - click here to learn a little more

C) Clean up! - Be sure and properly dispose of your pet waste...every little bit counts and can add up quickly in an urban watershed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Channelkeeper filling in gaps left by government beach testing


Photo by Paul Wellman

The Ventura County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation partners with the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper on a watershed water quality monitoring program.

Channelkeeper has also stepped up to the plate to provide much needed information on water quality during what the State considers to be the off-season. The County provides some funding to Channelkeeper to keep the testing going through the winter months, when there are at least as many surfers in the water as in the summer months, but this NGO implements this program with far less resources than they government is used to spending. Local media coverage below.

Poop Patrol

County Finances Nonprofit’s Water Monitoring

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ever since the state budget train wreck forced the county to pull the plug on its winter beach water testing program two summers ago, nonprofit organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper has been picking up the slack. Providing a massive public service to the thousands of surfers and swimmers who play in the Pacific Ocean during the months of November through March, Channelkeeper has been conducting weekly water testing at a dozen area beaches and has been the lone source of bacteria level updates. However, in recent months, the Channelkeeper program also found itself in jeopardy of becoming a casualty of economic strife — that is, until this week. Thanks to a 4-0 vote by the county supervisors on Tuesday (4th District’s Joni Gray was absent), the county will once again be providing the cash for winter quality tests, though Channelkeeper will continue to do the heavy lifting by carrying out the tests and informing the public. “Plain and simple, this is a public health issue” opined the 5th District’s Joe Centeno before the vote was cast. “I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.”

While the State of California mandates that the county test its beaches during the summer months of April through October, it doesn’t require anything to happen for the rest of the year, despite the fact that the wet winter months are more likely to create water quality issues due to storm water runoff. As a result, in the summer of 2008, after the state cut funding for winter testing programs, the county decided to pull the plug on its monitoring program. Knowing that the winter months are a time of year that many local beachgoers — especially surfers — live for, Channelkeeper, in conjunction with the City of Santa Barbara Creeks Division, stepped in and started the once-weekly tests for indicator bacteria like E-coli coliform and Enterococcus.

From Refugio State Beach to Rincon Point, Channelkeeper staff and interns tested 12 beaches every Monday (with the city handling testing duties at East Beach, Leadbetter, and Arroyo Burro) and provided their findings to the public free of charge via local news media and their Web site (www.sbck.org) on Tuesday evenings. Further, if a beach was tagged with a “warning” — based on California State Water Board thresholds — Channelkeeper would return to the site on Thursdays for a second test and post the follow-up results before the weekend. Last week, despite only having enough cash to carry out the testing for about two months, the organization’s testers picked up where they left off last March and released their first results of the new rainy season on November 3.

According to county staff, it cost the county some $52,000 annually to run the winter months program, but Channelkeeper needs only $15,000 to carry out essentially the exact same service.

Now, thanks to the proposal made by 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal this week, funding won’t be an issue for the testing program for the rest of this winter and, hopefully, for years to come. According to county staff, it cost the county some $52,000 annually to run the winter months program, but Channelkeeper needs only $15,000 to carry out essentially the exact same service. Speaking about the decision to provide Channelkeepr with the money necessary to keep the program going (the funds will come from tobacco-taxes), 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf said, “This is one of those minimal amounts [that we spend] that have a significant impact for our residents.”

While Channelkeeper will continue to inform the public of its findings via prior methods, the group will also be physically posting the weekly results at the Arroyo Burro Water Resource Center and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf. The County Health Department, citing a lack of funding, a lack of mandate, and the fact that the Channelkeeper’s lab is not state certified, will not be posting its tell-tale, bright orange “Warning/Aviso” signs at area beaches based on the nonprofit’s test results. A staple of the days when the county was implementing the program, the signs — which would be hung in parking lots and on the end of stakes stuck in the sand of offending beaches —  will not be present this winter, even if a beach is identified as having dangerous levels of bacteria.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Combined Sewer Overflows Pollute Water and Beaches

An excellent article has been posted by the New York Times covering the epidemic of combined sewer overflows and their impact on water quality, beaches and public health. The video below covers an ongoing issue with an overloaded and aging sewage system that has been causing beach closures in Newport, RI. This has been a concern of the RI chapter for some time now.

It was drizzling lightly in late October when the midnight shift started at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A worker maintaining a tank at a Brooklyn wastewater treatment plant. Half the rainstorms in New York overwhelm the system.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »
Damon Winter/The New York Times

William Grandner, superintendent of Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant in Brooklyn, kept an eye on multiple monitors that track the flow of sewage.

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

A few miles away, people were walking home without umbrellas from late dinners. But at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates.

That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.

“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”

One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.

It is not clear whether the sewage systems that have not reported such dumping are doing any better, because data on overflows and spillage are often incomplete.

As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.

A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.

Around New York City, samples collected at dozens of beaches or piers have detected the types of bacteria and other pollutants tied to sewage overflows. Though the city’s drinking water comes from upstate reservoirs, environmentalists say untreated excrement and other waste in the city’s waterways pose serious health risks.

A Deluge of Sewage

“After the storm, the sewage flowed down the street faster than we could move out of the way and filled my house with over a foot of muck,” said Laura Serrano, whose Bay Shore, N.Y., home was damaged in 2005 by a sewer overflow.

Ms. Serrano, who says she contracted viral meningitis because of exposure to the sewage, has filed suit against Suffolk County, which operates the sewer system. The county’s lawyer disputes responsibility for the damage and injuries.

“I had to move out, and no one will buy my house because the sewage was absorbed into the walls,” Ms. Serrano said. “I can still smell it sometimes.”

When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law. Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.

Thousands of other sewage systems operated by smaller cities, colleges, mobile home parks and companies have also broken the law. But few of the violators are ever punished.

The E.P.A., in a statement, said that officials agreed that overflows posed a “significant environmental and human health problem, and significantly reducing or eliminating such overflows has been a priority for E.P.A. enforcement since the mid-1990s.”

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Rainwater and sewage are treated at Owls Head.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Sewage often flows into waterways like Newtown Creek in Brooklyn.

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

In the last year, E.P.A. settlements with sewer systems in Hampton Roads, Va., and the east San Francisco Bay have led to more than $200 million spent on new systems to reduce pollution, the agency said. In October, the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said she was overhauling how the Clean Water Act is enforced.

But widespread problems still remain.

“The E.P.A. would rather look the other way than crack down on cities, since punishing municipalities can cause political problems,” said Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. “But without enforcement and fines, this problem will never end.”

Plant operators and regulators, for their part, say that fines would simply divert money from stretched budgets and that they are doing the best they can with aging systems and overwhelmed pipes.

New York, for example, was one of the first major cities to build a large sewer system, starting construction in 1849. Many of those pipes — constructed of hand-laid brick and ceramic tiles — are still used. Today, the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes operate almost entirely by gravity, unlike in other cities that use large pumps.

New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which handle 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, have been flooded with thousands of pickles (after a factory dumped its stock), vast flows of discarded chicken heads and large pieces of lumber.

When a toilet flushes in the West Village in Manhattan, the waste runs north six miles through gradually descending pipes to a plant at 137th Street, where it is mixed with so-called biological digesters that consume dangerous pathogens. The wastewater is then mixed with chlorine and sent into the Hudson River.

Fragile System

But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.

When the sky is clear, Owls Head can handle the sewage from more than 750,000 people. But the balance is so delicate that Mr. Connaughton and his colleagues must be constantly ready for rain.

They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr. Connaughton sometimes has trouble sleeping.

“I went to Hawaii with my wife, and the whole time I was flipping to the Weather Channel, seeing if it was raining in New York,” he said.

New York’s sewage system overflows essentially every other time it rains.

Reducing such overflows is a priority, city officials say. But eradicating the problem would cost billions.

Officials have spent approximately $35 billion over three decades improving the quality of the waters surrounding the city and have improved systems to capture and store rainwater and sewage, bringing down the frequency and volume of overflows, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a statement.

“Water quality in New York City has improved dramatically in the last century, and particularly in the last two decades,” officials wrote.

Several years ago, city officials estimated that it would cost at least $58 billion to prevent all overflows. “Even an expenditure of that magnitude would not result in every part of a river or bay surrounding the city achieving water quality that is suitable for swimming,” the department wrote. “It would, however, increase the average N.Y.C. water and sewer bill by 80 percent.”

The E.P.A., concerned about the risks of overflowing sewers, issued a national framework in 1994 to control overflows, including making sure that pipes are designed so they do not easily become plugged by debris and warning the public when overflows occur. In 2000, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to crack down on overflows.

But in hundreds of places, sewer systems remain out of compliance with that framework or the Clean Water Act, which regulates most pollution discharges to waterways. And the burdens on sewer systems are growing as cities become larger and, in some areas, rainstorms become more frequent and fierce.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the largest of New York City’s 14 treatment plants.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

New York’s system, for instance, was designed to accommodate a so-called five-year storm — a rainfall so extreme that it is expected to occur, on average, only twice a decade. But in 2007 alone, the city experienced three 25-year storms, according to city officials — storms so strong they would be expected only four times each century.

“When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes,” said James Roberts, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Government’s Response

To combat these shifts, some cities are encouraging sewer-friendly development. New York, for instance, has instituted zoning laws requiring new parking lots to include landscaped areas to absorb rainwater, established a tax credit for roofs with absorbent vegetation and begun to use millions of dollars for environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.

Philadelphia has announced it will spend $1.6 billion over 20 years to build rain gardens and sidewalks of porous pavement and to plant thousands of trees.

But unless cities require private developers to build in ways that minimize runoff, the volume of rain flowing into sewers is likely to grow, environmentalists say.

The only real solution, say many lawmakers and water advocates, is extensive new spending on sewer systems largely ignored for decades. As much as $400 billion in extra spending is needed over the next decade to fix the nation’s sewer infrastructure, according to estimates by the E.P.A. and the Government Accountability Office.

Legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill contains millions in water infrastructure grants, and the stimulus bill passed this year set aside $6 billion to improve sewers and other water systems.

But that money is only a small fraction of what is needed, officials say. And over the last two decades, federal money for such programs has fallen by 70 percent, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which estimates that a quarter of the state’s sewage and wastewater treatment plants are “using outmoded, inadequate technology.”

“The public has no clue how important these sewage plants are,” said Mr. Connaughton of the Brooklyn site. “Waterborne disease was the scourge of mankind for centuries. These plants stopped that. We’re doing everything we can to clean as much sewage as possible, but sometimes, that isn’t enough.”