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Muck Runs Amok

Algae are suffocating some of California's most popular lakes and streams. The culprits are nutrients from fertilizer and sewage.

September 08, 2004|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

The clear, cooling waters of Solstice Creek, in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Malibu, evoke images of a different time, a different place.

Children chase tree-frog tadpoles and blue damselflies. Their parents slip off their shoes and wade into the water just to feel it between their toes. Fish dart through the water as long-legged water striders leave dimples on the surface. Orange newts climb on cobblestones, and mayfly nymphs, a plump meal for fish and frogs, burrow into the mud.

A few miles away, Malibu Creek presents a picture that is now far more common. Children who reach into the water pull out smelly masses of stringy neon-green algae. And if they step into the murky depths, they risk slipping on rocks coated with foamy brown scum.

These two contrasting streams illustrate one of California's most pervasive water pollution problems: Nutrients, which cause algae to grow more rapidly than nature ever intended, are spoiling what should -- and still could -- be some of California's most picturesque and popular waterways. Nitrogen and other nutrients from fertilizers, cow manure and human sewage are overloading virtually every waterway downstream from cities and farms.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Tapia wastewater plant -- A Sept. 8 article in Section A about the effect of algae on California waterways said the Tapia wastewater treatment plant discharges 9 million gallons a day of treated sewage into the Malibu Creek watershed except during the summer. The plant discharges 5.1 million gallons of treated sewage directly into the creek. Much of the remaining wastewater and sludge is used on farm fields and landscaping, and some eventually washes into the creek. The plant is not allowed to discharge into the creek from mid-April through mid-November, the California dry season.

Nutrients now impair more waterways in California than any other pollutant except bacteria. Nearly 300 -- from Lake Tahoe, which has lost much of its clarity, to the Tijuana River -- have been declared unfit for aquatic life or recreation because of excessive nutrients.

Excessive algae growth robs waters of oxygen, suffocating fish and other aquatic life. And although the algal blooms found in streams and lakes do not pose a human health threat, many people perceive the slimy waters as unsafe and unattractive.

"People enjoy being near streams and waterways that are clear and have no smell. You don't want to swim in pea soup -- and smelly pea soup at that," said Rik Rasmussen of the State Water Resources Control Board.

In a deep channel of the San Joaquin River near Stockton, chinook salmon, one of the state's rarest fish, can't reach their spawning grounds because algae suck up so much oxygen the fish can't breathe.

At Riverside County's Canyon Lake, masses of algae clog the filters of a plant that delivers drinking water, sometimes forcing it to shut. Nearby, at Lake Elsinore, dead fish wash ashore as oxygen levels plummet.

At Las Virgenes Creek in Malibu Creek State Park, priests baptizing babies purify souls with greenish-brown water.

In Stemple Creek, which flows from Sonoma County into Bodega Bay, so much ammonia flows from cow and chicken manure that the water is poisonous to aquatic life.

For three decades, some areas of the country, especially around the Great Lakes, have been trying to rein in nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia from farms and wastewater plants. But though some waterways have improved, most, especially in California, are worse.

"Nutrient release is not regulated in this country right now," said Walter Dodds, a Kansas State University biologist who co-wrote an EPA document that is helping states set criteria for controlling nutrients. "There are exceptions, but mostly people are doing nothing."

California is just beginning to tackle its over-fertilized waters by developing standards for nutrients and setting individual limits for each body of water.

In the next few years, the battle could force changes in how farmers fertilize fields, how houses are built and how many millions of dollars the public spends to treat its sewage.

Some Southern California sewage plants are already building expensive new nutrient-removing facilities. Los Angeles is spending $77 million at two plants to eliminate 90% of ammonia and 60% of nitrogen from effluent discharged into the Los Angeles River.

The upgrades will cost city residents, who spend an average of $21 per month on residential sewer service, a "very small" amount, "pennies per household," said Joe Mundine of the city's sanitation department.

In tackling nutrients, California faces many complexities and uncertainties. Scientists and regulators know that although they can reduce the problem, they can't eliminate it. And because more people means more nutrients, the algae problem is likely to get worse before it gets better in many watersheds.

"The one general statement you can make about nutrients," said Ken Harris, chief of a department at the state water board that is coordinating plans for about 175 nutrient-loaded waterways, "is that where you find people, you will find streams that are impaired by them."

It's a case of too much of a good thing. Nitrogen, the most abundant element in the atmosphere, is a natural and essential ingredient in oceans, lakes, rivers and streams.

"These systems need a certain amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to sustain life. If you took it all out, all the plants would die," said John Warwick, director of hydrologic sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

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