Water Quality Symposium Is Forum for Recent Discoveries
• New Evidence Implies that Current Projects Designed Using Old Science May Be Inherently Flawed
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
A water symposium sponsored by the City of Malibu offered insight into a variety of new technologies for tracking and identifying water pollutants, but it also revealed how challenging it can be, even for biologists equipped with new tools that include DNA testing to accurately determine contamination sources.
The information presented by several speakers also provided ammunition for opponents of the State Park's Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Plan and the Civic Center-area sewer proposal, because much of the research presented appears to indicate that contamination in the Malibu Creek watershed is an extremely complex issue that includes significant naturally occurring contaminants that cannot be mitigated by the currently proposed projects, which were developed based on outmoded research that is as much as 10 years out of date.
SCCWRP researcher Steve Weisberg discussed the epidemiology of nonpoint source impacted beaches, including Surfrider; USGS scientist John Izbicki reported on his team's research on sources of fecal indicator bacteria in Malibu Lagoon and the surrounding groundwater and near-shore ocean; Cal Poly researcher Christopher Kitt detailed the detective process and DNA testing tools his team of researchers used to identify contamination sources at Pismo Beach; Eric Dubinsky, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories discussed the newly developed PhyloChip Microarray Analysis and how it could be used to identify bacteria sources; and Randal Orton, Resource Conservation Manager at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, spotlighted geological influences on Malibu Creek, describing in detail how the Monterey Formation leaches phosphate and other naturally-occurring contaminants into the watershed.
"[There are] developments in testing for bacteria, promising new tests that deliver same-day results," Weisberg said, during his presentation on the search for a correlation between illness rates and bacterial standards.
The new methods include Scorpion qPCR, which is being trialed this year by LA County.
"If you do more rapid methodology you get much better information," Weisberg explained. "Rapid method provides much advantage, but you must test every day."
"Malibu is a very frustrating site for us. Concentrations [were] so low during the period of study it was hard to study. One of problems we also ran into is the berm is open for a very small part of the season [and] when the berm is open, swimmers are asked to stay away."
"There's some suggestion of health risk, but not a very clear answer," Weisberg said, adding that the researchers did not yet have a big enough sample to reveal a pattern.
Weisberg, together with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, also discussed the Ramirez Creek Source Identification Study, which was commissioned to determine why the outflow at Paradise Cove was receiving failing water quality grades.
In March 2007, the board approved a $1 million study on the high level of bacterial concentration levels in Ramirez and Escondido Creek," Yaroslavsky explained. "We wanted to know more about where this was coming from and what can we do about it." The supervisor said that "without knowing the exact source we can spend millions of dollars. It's usually one thing, one house, one complex. Instead of spending trillions, we can zero in on it and solve the problem."
The story started in 2005-6," Weisberg said. "About one third of samples at Paradise Cove had fairly substantial problems. It led to finger pointing. A lot of possible sources: leaking infrastructure, animals [and] bacterial regrowth."
Weisberg said that a search for "obvious sites" failed to yield results and that the watershed was not found to be a substantial source. "[There was] little evidence of fecal contamination," he said. "Enterococcus where the creek itself hits beach was at 100:1 dilution. The numbers we found were fairly low. A couple of hundred yards upstream of PCH the numbers starting to get into area of concern. The water flow was fairly low. There were pools of concentration, not getting down to the beach."
Weisberg said that there was "little evidence of human fecal sources," however the researchers found that residents were dumping grass clippings into the creek, causing bacteria regrowth. The practice was stopped.
Weisberg suggested that wrack—seaweed left by the tide—and other plant matter could serve as an incubator for bacteria regrowth. Birds could also be a contributing factor, according to the report. Horses and humans were not.
"You guys kill scientists by fixing problems," Weisberg said. "They put out a press release that they were going to do this study [and] people started doing things differently. In the end, is the problem solved? Yes and no. Now [the contamination is] way down, but the problem is not completely solved. We've made progress. The years that we studied it [we're] pretty confident the watershed is not the source."
USGS 30-year veteran John Izbicki also concluded that human waste was not a major part of the contamination equation at Malibu Creek, contrary to the research used by the water board to force a central sewer system on the Civic Center area.
Izbicki found that enterococcus was high in commercial wastewater systems, and lowest in high tech residential on site treatment systems. However, the extensive USGS study found that fecal indicator bacteria were almost completely absent from groundwater.
"It doesn't look like you could get this to be a source of bacteria here if it isn't there," he said.
The study examined stable isotopes, including the isotopic signature of precipitation, which forms at a cooler temperature than groundwater and has a lower number of isotopes, different from imported water—in addition to bacteria. According to Izbicki, some wells contained nearly 70 percent wastewater, but they didn't have fecal bacteria.
"In the lagoon [there is three-five percent wastewater. In the western lagoon, 15 percent. We don't see any relationship between the enterococcus and wastewater."
Izbicki said that the study found Bisphenol A, cosmetics, and cholesterol. "We know we are sampling wastewater, but human fecal contamination in the wastewater is not present. It's not transported to receiving water or groundwater. Hydrology is a little counter intuitive."
However, when the berm is closed, bacteria levels in the lagoon soar. The numbers "crash" in the late afternoon, according to Izbicki. Presumably due to dilution and UV radiation from sunlight.
"We tend to see highest bacteria concentrations at high tide, not low tide," he said. The study involved pattern matching of strands of genetic material from bacteria. Izbicki indicated that there was "higher correspondence with kelp wrack." He summarized that "fecal indicator bacteria tend to be low. Human-specific effectively absent."
Las Virgenes Municipal Water District representative Randal Orton also had bad news for those hoping a central sewer system will fix Malibu Creek's water quality problems. According to Orton, runoff from the Monterey Formation, a major sedimentary rock formation that contains Southern California's oil reserves and also contains astronomically high levels of sulfate, phosphate, chloride, magnesium, calcium, metals like silver, zinc and lead and even uranium, creates unsafe levels of contamination that have nothing to do with human impacts on the environment.
"The highest concentrations are in open space above development," Orton said. "[There are] incredible amounts of sulfate in this groundwater, magnesium and calcium, too.
"The current Total Maximum Daily Load and sulfate objectives are unattainable at this location. We don't tap the area for drinking water."
According to Orton, the Monterey Formation makes northern tributaries in the Santa Monica Mountains unfit for human consumption due to sulfate and phosphates. A national database indicates that Malibu Creek and its tributaries are "almost unique," the seventh highest for sulfate in the nation.
Orton explained that five of the other waterways at the top of the list are downstream from coal mines. Two others are desert mineral springs.
"Phosphate mines [used for commercial] fertilizer in Orange County are in Monterey Formation."
Orton stated that the high levels in the Malibu Creek watershed "can't be explained by pure urban runoff."
"If you have marine sediments of the Monterey type you won't be able to control algae. Tertiary marine siltstone in the Malibu Creek watershed may make it impossible to control algae. The Monterey formation is creating perfect conditions for algae growth. Some species are well-adapted to high sulfate waters."
Orton stated that the sulfate reading "falsely indicate human impact when it's naturally occurring."
"Malibu Creek doesn't get better than poor for macro-invertebrates," he said. The arroyo chub is the only native non-anadromous species [found in the creek].
"Don't eat the fish, don't drink the water," Orton recommended. "The upper watershed particle counts of uranium are too high to drink."
Orton stated that wells in the area are located in the Conejo volcanics, not in the Monterey Formation.
He also warned that uranium decays into radioactive isotopes of radon, creating an elevated risk for radon contamination in the basements of homes built on the formation, which extends throughout portions of the Santa Monica Mountains and is also present on Point Dume, where large basements are a popular addition to remodeled and new homes. "It's $7 for a radon kit," Orton said.
"I think we have a different perspective," said Heal the Bay's Mark Gold, whose presentation followed Orton's.
Gold described how his organization has mapped nearly 70 miles of stream for illegal dump sites, invasive vegetation and failing and hardened stream banks, with the help of thousands of volunteer hours and over 100 participants. There are 19.6 linear miles of eroding stream banks, 20.9 linear miles of armored creeks.
Gold called for the removal of the Rindge Dam and other obstructions, including riprap installed in 1998 with an emergency permit near the Malibu Creek Bridge. He stated that steelhead migration and increased fish habitat should be a priority.
"The Monterey input is very important," Gold said. "Levels as high as .5 [occur]. No disagreement there, but what we do see is that at the point of Tapia discharge phosphates go up dramatically.
"Trends in fecal indicator bacteria get higher as you move down the watershed," Gold said.
"Unfortunately we definitely have a watershed on the brink. What happens now? It's very important to have low impact development/redevelopment. With all of the developments we've seen devastating impacts."
The audience for the all-day seminar was comprised predominantly of visiting scientists and municipal staff from cities up and down the coast, only a small percentage of those present were Malibu residents.
However, the symposium was recorded and Mayor John Sibert indicated that there was a plan to make the video available to the public.