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Slowing a tide of pollutants

Runoff from land dwellers -- urban and agricultural -- harms coastal waters, but there are solutions.

December 25, 2006|By Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Call it the slobber stopper.

It looks like an elaborate fountain. Water gurgles through a series of red-tiled pools, spillways and chutes within sight of the pedestrian walkway that connects the bluffs of Santa Monica with the Santa Monica Pier.

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, or SMURRF, is the only thing preventing 350,000 gallons of urban runoff from coursing into the Pacific every day.

The $12-million contraption is at the forefront of efforts to curb the torrent of pollutants that threaten the world's oceans. Sitting near the mouth of the city's largest storm drain, it collects and treats the frothy flow that trickles out of a seaside metropolis day after day from sprinklers, washed cars and drained pools, bearing with it cat and dog waste, spilled engine oil, lawn chemicals, brake dust, bacteria and viruses.

The liquid waste, called "urban slobber," is filtered; sterilized with ultraviolet light; and recycled to irrigate Palisades Park and a city cemetery and to flush the toilets at police headquarters. Styrofoam cups, plastic bags and other solid debris are scooped out and hauled to a landfill.

Yet such farsighted ingenuity remains the exception rather than the rule. SMURRF is the only urban-runoff recycling plant in the country. Efficient as it is, it captures a tiny fraction of the runoff flowing into California's coastal waters.

Urban runoff is the fastest-growing source of ocean pollution. The storm water discharge, combined with partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, and pollution from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, is changing the chemistry of the seas.

Industrial civilization is overloading the oceans with nutrients — compounds of nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous. Algae, jellyfish and other primitive life-forms are thriving in this new environment, while corals, marine mammals and many fish species are struggling.

Scientists say society has only recently begun to grasp how what happens on land affects the sea. It has taken decades to get to this point, they say, and it could take just as long to reverse the trend.

"We have millions of people who live near the water and whose waste contributes to degrading the quality of coastal waters," said Dave Caron, a USC biological oceanographer. "It's only common sense that we should take care and treat this like it were our backyard."

Government and industry officials, with the benefit of scientific studies, can now pinpoint the multitude of pollution sources. They also know how to fix the problems, said Paul Faeth, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. "We've got the tools," he said, "but need the political will to get it done."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, often has failed to enforce the Clean Water Act's requirement to stop pollutants from entering U.S. coastal waters deemed impaired, except when forced to do so by federal courts.

Drainage into the Santa Monica Bay and other Southern California waters is regulated under a judge's orders to reduce the trash, bacteria and other contaminants.

Still, dozens of cities have spent years and more than $1 million battling compliance requirements in court. In the meantime, many of the simplest and least expensive cleanup methods have been ignored — including the use of street sweepers to follow trash trucks and scoop up spills.

With its civic image and tourist industry tied to picture-perfect beaches, Santa Monica didn't need a court order to tidy up its coastline.

SMURRF, which began operating five years ago, has already shown results. The big storm drain empties onto the sand next to the luxurious hotels Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. The popular beach used to get failing grades from ocean monitoring groups because contaminated waters threatened public health.

Now, with SMURRF intercepting and treating the runoff, the beach gets mostly A's.

"This is incredibly important to Santa Monica," said Craig Perkins, the city's director of environmental and public works management. "We get 3 [million] to 5 million visitors a year. It's logical to assume that they would prefer the beaches and ocean are safe and clean."

Santa Monica diverts most of the flow that SMURRF can't handle to a sewage treatment plant. Still, there are limits to what the infrastructure can do. In heavy rainstorms, the runoff from storm drains can overwhelm treatment plants and risk spilling raw sewage. City engineers have to release these polluted floodwaters into the sea.

That has prompted Santa Monica and other cities, including Seattle and Portland, Ore., to focus on stopping runoff at its sources: the rooftops, roads, sidewalks and parking lots that shed water.

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