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Clean Water

arial view of a water treatment plant

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Here in the Pacific Southwest, public awareness of water issues peaks during droughts, floods, major oil spills, and sewage spills. Keeping our waters clean requires routine but essential work every day of the year by EPA and state, regional and local agencies.

Much of the work involves infrastructure-building, maintaining, and improving facilities that treat clean water to make it drinkable, and other facilities to treat wastewater for discharge without harming aquatic life or people. (It's a particular challenge on remote tribal lands and Pacific islands-see story.)

These facilities are built and operated by local governments, but EPA and state governments provide funding and issue permits that specify how clean the discharged water must be to protect designated uses such as fishing and swimming.

A changing climate, growing population and rising energy costs all add to the challenge of maintaining adequate infrastructure. In addition to funding, EPA provides technical support and other resources to help utilities operate more sustainably.

Wastewater treatment can't do the whole job of protecting watersheds. EPA also works to prevent stormwater runoff from polluting waterways by controlling pollutants at their source. Restoration of degraded streams and estuaries is another essential element in the protection of watersheds and the wildlife and people they support.

Meeting the Challenge of Sustainable Water Infrastructure

EPA's Sustainable Water Infrastructure and Climate Change initiative promotes energy and water efficiency at wastewater and drinking water utilities in the Pacific Southwest. Such management practices conserve water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save money, freeing up funding for training and capital improvement projects.

Improving energy efficiency at drinking water and wastewater facilities reduces greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs.

EPA's Pacific Southwest Water Division has launched a Sustainable Water Infrastructure Web site, which provides agencies and operators with information about a comprehensive four-step energy management process, case studies, efficient and renewable energy technologies, and funding opportunities-including the State Revolving Fund loan programs, which have been bolstered by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (see box).

EPA provides sustainability guidance to utilities: Energy Management Guidebook (PDF) (113 pp, 3.4M, About PDF)

To promote energy and water efficiency, EPA has also begun a series of energy management workshops and ENERGY STAR benchmarking classes in the Pacific Southwest. The first workshop drew an audience of more than 100 utility operators and managers.

Water and wastewater facilities are among the largest and most energy-intensive systems owned and operated by local governments, accounting for approximately 30-50% of municipal energy use. U.S. drinking water and wastewater facilities annually spend about $4 billion on energy, representing about 53 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions.

Additionally, the costs of adapting water infrastructure to climate change impacts-like drought, increasing storm severity, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and reduced snow pack-will be substantial.

The American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act

On February 17, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The act, part of a concerted effort to create jobs and stimulate the U.S. economy, provides $288 billion in economic recovery tax relief and $499 billion in targeted priority investments with unprecedented accountability measures built in.

Of the $6 billion in ARRA funding allocated for water infrastructure projects through the State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan programs, approximately $650 million will go to projects in the Pacific Southwest Region. In addition, 20% of the funding is designated to be used for environmentally innovative projects that address energy efficiency, water efficiency and innovative stormwater management.

More on sustainable infrastructure tools:

Sustainable Water Infrastructure

More on the Recovery Act in the Pacific Southwest:

Recovery Act

What you can do to conserve water:


EPA estimates that it will cost approximately $500 billion over the next 20 years to meet America's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs. Since 1970, EPA's Construction Grant and SRF programs have provided over $140 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and EPA continues to provide annual SRF program capitalization grants.


Strengthening Discharge Permits for Coastal Cities

Water clarifier
A clarifier at the Honouliuli treatment facility in Honolulu.

As every major city in the United States discharges treated wastewater into nearby waterways, EPA places a high priority on establishing and enforcing stringent state and federal discharge permits to protect public health and the environment.

In December 2008 and January 2009, EPA took action affecting municipalities in California, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa, and how thoroughly they treat their water before discharge. These actions will help protect recreational users of ocean waters such as anglers and surfers, as well as marine life.

The Basics of Wastewater Discharge

To comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972, most municipal wastewater treatment plants use both primary and secondary treatment. Primary treatment involves screening out large floating objects, such as rags and sticks, removing grit, such as sand and small stones, and allowing wastewater to settle, followed by the removal of collected solids. In secondary treatment, primary-treated wastewater flows into another facility where bacteria consume most of the organic matter in the wastewater before it is discharged.

Amendments to the law in 1977 allow for variances from secondary treatment for certain ocean discharges, provided the plant meets specified criteria. One important requirement is that the discharge must meet water quality standards adopted by the state to protect marine life and recreational activities such as swimming, surfing and fishing.

Many coastal cities that once sought variances from secondary treatment have chosen to upgrade their treatment plants to meet Clean Water Act requirements without variances. This is especially true in areas with heavy recreational beach use. Also, as water supplies become more valuable, an increasing number of municipalities are adding advanced treatment technologies to their secondary treatment plants to clean the wastewater to the point it can be used safely for landscape irrigation and other uses.

Upgrading Treatment Plants in California
The East Bay Municipal Utility District has agreed to improve its infrastructure to reduce wet-weather discharges into San Francisco Bay.

In January, EPA announced an agreement with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) that requires the district to address wet weather discharges of partially-treated stormwater, which includes some sewage, into the bay.

Terms of the agreement, contained in a revised discharge permit, require EBMUD to identify areas with the highest wet weather sewage flows for sewer repair and flow reduction. In addition, EBMUD must develop a program requiring repair of leaking private sewer pipes that extend from homes and businesses to city sewer mains, spend at least $2 million annually in incentives to accelerate repair of private sewer pipes, and improve maintenance and repair of sewers.

Also in January 2009, EPA approved a permit incorporating a variance for the Morro Bay/Cayucos wastewater treatment plant in Morro Bay, Calif. The permit will enable the facility to continue operating while work is underway to complete a secondary sewage treatment facility within five years. In addition, after working with EPA, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and other state and local authorities, the discharger has decided to go beyond Clean Water Act requirements and implement tertiary treatment and water recycling. Tertiary treated water can be used for farm and landscape irrigation.

Recent EPA actions will require municipalities to more thoroughly clean up their wastewater.

EPA has also proposed to approve San Diego's request for a similar variance, as the city recently upgraded its Point Loma Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant to disinfect treated wastewater. Point Loma's discharge point is 4.5 miles offshore, about 300 feet deep. EPA will make a final decision in mid-2009 after considering comments from the public.

Upgrading Treatment Plants in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands
In 2006, a sewage spill into Honolulu's Ala Wai Canal caused a week-long closure of a portion of Waikiki Beach.

In January, EPA denied Honolulu's request for continuation of two variances allowing the city to discharge wastewater from two treatment plants without secondary treatment. EPA had reviewed the city's applications for the variances, including water quality data from the last several years, and carefully considered and responded to public comments. EPA concluded that the discharges from the Sand Island and Honouliuli treatment facilities do not meet Clean Water Act requirements, including standards designed to protect recreational use and marine life in the vicinity of the offshore ocean outfalls. The Honolulu treatment plants will be required to upgrade to full secondary treatment, pending the outcome of a recent appeal.

"We will work with Honolulu to upgrade its two largest wastewater plants, and make other improvements to its wastewater systems," said Alexis Strauss, director of EPA's Water Division in the Pacific Southwest Region.

In January, EPA proposed to deny variances for the Agana and Northern District wastewater treatment plants in Guam and the Tafuna and Utulei wastewater treatment plants in American Samoa. EPA's tentative decisions include findings that the discharges do not meet the criteria for protecting recreation and marine life. EPA is accepting comments from the public on the proposed denials and will consider the comments received before making final decisions.

Taken together, the recent actions by EPA will result in substantial improvements to water quality in the coastal waters of the Pacific Southwest.

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Restoring Coastal Watersheds in California

California's coastal streams and estuaries, from the Tijuana Estuary on the U.S.-Mexico border to the Smith River near the Oregon border, are critical habitats for endangered fish and wildlife, as well as water sources for people.

Endangered species like the Coho Salmon, Southern Steelhead Trout, and Red-Legged Frog still live in coastal streams as far south as Malibu, but they struggle to survive in waterways degraded by water diversions and drought, soil erosion, pollution, dams, gravel mining, and channelization.

State and federal water quality officials visit the Tijuana Estuary, where excess sediment and trash threaten a highly valued aquatic ecosystem.

Recognizing these threats, EPA partners with state and local agencies and nonprofits to provide funding and oversight for critical watershed protection efforts through a broad range of programs. EPA is part of the West Coast Governors' Agreement on Ocean Health, joining together the efforts of Washington, Oregon and California with federal agencies to focus on the Pacific Ocean.

The San Francisco Estuary Project received a nearly $5 million EPA grant in December 2008 to fund projects run by more than a dozen local organizations to help protect the Bay's fragile ecosystem. Examples include reducing urban storm runoff, removing mercury from upstream watersheds, and improving habitat for native fish. In addition, every year EPA funds nonpoint source pollution prevention projects along coastal streams.

A wide-ranging new effort is the West Coast Estuaries Initiative for the California Coast, part of EPA's Targeted Watershed Grant Program. These grants advance partnerships that conserve, restore and protect the water quality, habitat and environment of coastal waters, estuaries, bays and nearshore waters. Congress appropriated a total of $7.5 million in 2007 and 2008. Nine projects, now underway, were chosen in a competitive process (see below); state and local matching funds leveraged $11 million more.

More on Watershed Priorities:

Watershed Priorities

A recent EPA enforcement settlement against housing developers for stormwater violations at construction sites included a $608,000 project to prevent sediment runoff into Mendocino County's Garcia River. Specifics include fixing roads, decommissioning unused roads, and restoring the tree canopy and native vegetation in two Garcia River tributaries.

West Coast Estuaries Initiative for the California Coast: 2007 and 2008 Grants

Restoration of Waukell Creek Wetland/Stream Habitats, Klamath River (Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program) $547,832 (Federal: $493,000) North Coast

Mattole River Estuary (Mattole Salmon Group) $2,325,242 (Federal: $958,435) Humboldt/Mendocino Counties

Green Infill-Clean Stormwater (Association of Bay Area Governments/SFEP) $3,461,995 (Federal: $996,495) San Francisco Bay

Lower Carmel River Floodplain Restoration Project (Big Sur Land Trust) $2,992,000 (Federal: $992,000) Carmel Bay/Monterey County

San Gregorio Creek Watershed: Filling Critical Flow Needs (American Rivers) $589,646 (Federal: $441,146) Coastal San Mateo County

Transforming Inflows to Elkhorn Estuary: Lower Carneros Creek Wetlands (Ag. & Land-Based Training Assoc.) $1,459,962 (Federal: $999,962) Monterey Bay

Moro Cojo Slough Restoration and Management Plan (Moss Landing Marine Labs, San Jose State Univ.) $360,847 (Federal: $267,347) Monterey Bay

South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration/Enhancement (San Diego Unified Port Dist.) $2,229,043 (Federal: $1,000,000) South San Diego County

Tijuana River Watershed: Water Quality & Community Outreach (SW Wetlands Interpretive Assoc.) $1,799,297 (Federal: $990,898) Border/South San Diego County

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Amy Miller:Reducing Stormwater Impacts

"You go out into the field and work with people to solve problems. Each case has an endpoint, where you can see the environmental results."

Amy Miller is team leader of the Pacific Southwest Water Division's Stormwater and Wetlands Enforcement Team. She supervises the group, but still gets out into the field for inspections and case development.

"With wetlands cases, it's like CSI on TV-you look at the damage and try to find out what it was like originally, what happened, and who did it," she says. In a recent Arizona case, a developer bulldozed more than three square miles of land, destroying an ancient mesquite forest, and damming, rerouting and channelizing the Santa Cruz River.

Amy Miller

"I hiked all over the property, and it was like a moonscape," Amy recalled. During the next heavy rainfall, downstream flooding resulted. The developer paid penalties of $1.25 million-one of the nation's largest penalties for a wetlands violation.

Industrial stormwater cases are different. Inspectors look for potential pollution sources at open sites like ports, mines and construction sites. Port facilities are subject to stormwater requirements. Due to ports' close proximity to waterways, trash and contaminants on the ground during rainstorms are often washed directly into the water.

In 2007, Amy's team and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board conducted 55 inspections of tenants at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, resulting in 20 compliance orders. In 2008, EPA and the Central Valley Regional Board conducted a similar audit at the Port of Stockton. The agencies also conducted on-site audits on the ports' own stormwater compliance programs.

Beverage manufacturers are another potential source of stormwater pollution. In one case, she says, "There was oil and grease on the ground, and the stench of spoiled soft drinks on hot asphalt was terrible."

The beverages contain nutrients and are acidic, which can harm sensitive stream ecosystems. The spoiled liquids should have been disposed of in the sanitary sewer system-where the effluent is treated-not in the stormwater system, which drains to creeks and beaches.

In a recent case against two California soft drink facilities, the legal settlement required the company to pay about $1 million in penalties and hire an environmental director to ensure that best management practices are followed. Amy says the next time she inspected the facilities, "They were so clean. It was very rewarding to see the entire staff change their ethic."

When Amy was at Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, she was planning a career in foreign service with the U.S. State Department. Then she took an internship at EPA, and it changed everything.

"I fell in love with enforcement," she says. It's really not as strange as it sounds. "You go out into the field and work with people to solve problems. Each case has an endpoint, where you can see the environmental results."

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