Clean Water Act
During winter's first storm, citizens fan out to monitor runoff for pollutants.
Thursday, November 14, 2002
With rain falling hard, whipped sideways by the wind last Thursday night, three local volunteers stood huddled in slick raincoats near a large culvert at Greenwood Park in Pacific Grove. The rainwater gushing from the pipe was loud, frothy and smelled like New Jersey.
As volunteers for the First Flush water monitoring program, Steve Leiker, Kelleen Harter and John Fischer had waited until the first of the winter rains hit the Peninsula to convene at this culvert. The rain started after work that night, so they got the call.
The idea behind First Flush is to find out what kind of pollutants are on our streets, which end up in the ocean via storm drains. With the first big rainfall, whatever has collected on the ground, pavement, sidewalks and gutters through the summer and fall get swept into the deluge, down through storm drains, out the culvert and into the ocean.
On the night of Nov. 7, First Flush volunteers monitored "urban outfalls" like culverts from Pacific Grove north to Santa Cruz.
The Greenwood Park culvert emptied storm drains covering 250 acres of PG. The volunteers there had to collect three buckets of water for testing, from which smaller samples are taken. While the water pouring toward the ocean had the sick, frothy look of streams found near sewage treatment plants or factories, the sample sitting in the pail was murky and gray.
"This is everything that''s on the street," says Steve Leiker, a First Flush volunteer and member of the Pacific Grove public works department.
Besides the invisible poisons that only show up in tests, volunteers spread out at 11 sites on the Peninsula reported seeing a football and a compact disc, among other things, shoot out of the culverts.
Usually the monitoring is all done on one day. It''s organized through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its citizen watershed monitoring network. This year, however, the storm hit in Santa Cruz first, prompting the volunteer teams covering that end of the Sanctuary coast to go out in the middle of the night
This is also the third year of Urban Watch, a program to monitor storm drain run-off during the summer when there is no rain. Anything coming out of storm drain in the summer is typically going to be man-made. Drains in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Capitola are checked twice a month. The point is to identify "hot spots" and trace back pollution to the source. When it''s found, the responsible party is contacted and informed, much in the way that Pacific Grove restaurant owners were contacted during the campaign to stop grease and detergent pollution there.
The Sanctuary also sponsors a "Snapshot Day" in the spring that gathers an illustration of water conditions in the Bay.
All of these tests are designed to detect what is known as "non-point-source" pollution-poisons that enter the environment from numerous, unknown sources. Rachel Saunders, the public affairs officer for the Sanctuary, says regulators using the 30-year-old Clean Water Act have been successful shutting down point source pollution from specific locations such as sewage treatment plants. With point source pollution somewhat tamed, regulators are looking at non-point source pollution. Stormdrain runoff such as what gushed forth from area drainpipes last week might contain non-point source pollution.
The monitors expect to find high coliform counts from animal waste, kitty litter, detergent and oil and grease from the road surfaces. The idea of getting the many samples is to determine patterns of pollution based on where and when it was detected. Last year, high levels of bacteria, copper (from automobile brakepads), roofing materials and orthophosphates from fertilizers were detected.
This year, the Department of Fish & Game will also be conducting toxicity tests in which an organism is exposed to the water taken by the First Flush volunteers. The test is simple: Does the creature live or die in the local water? The species being used for the test are sea urchin larvae, as well as small anchovy-like fish known as a top smelt.
"That''s really going to tell us a lot," says Bridget Hoover, coordinator of the Citizen Watershed Monitoring Network. "We really don''t have any standards for urban runoff, so we don''t know what''s bad."
The samples have to be tested shortly after being collected and tests for bacteria require fresh samples. "We won''t know the results for about a month," Saunders says.