This year marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act--a landmark in environmental and community health legislation. The Clean Water Act (CWA) established benchmark legislation to "protect and restore" our nations waters. In doing so, it set a goal of ensuring that our waters would be fishable, swimmable, and drinkable by 1983--a goal we are still trying to accomplish to this day. The need for this monumental legislation was preceded by the Cuyahoga River disaster in Ohio. The industrial river had become so polluted that it caught fire. This event provided the impetus for Congress to pass legislation recognizing the federal responsibility for the care of our nation's waters and the right of the people themselves to ensure that their waters are clean.
When the Clean Water Act first became law, two-thirds of our nation's lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing, drinking, or swimming, and untreated sewage and industrial waste was routinely dumped into waterways. Under the CWA, the newly created EPA implemented programs to control the discharge of pollutants to our waters, as well as set standards for the quality of waters themselves, and the EPA has moved us towards the CWA's original goals. We have a long ways to go still.
Humboldt Baykeeper is part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of clean water advocacy organizations, and together we are celebrating all that clean water and the CWA represents with the 40th Anniversary of the CWA. Locally, Humboldt Baykeeper is taking time in 2012 to celebrate the North Coast's beautiful watersheds in honor of the Clean Water Act and its worthy goal.
Dioxin Listing and Humboldt Bay's Industrial Legacy
Humboldt Baykeeper was launched in October 2004 to safeguard coastal resources for the health, enjoyment, and economic strength of the Humboldt Bay community. Local community members recognized a need to have an organization specifically focused on Humboldt Bay and its surrounding tributaries after strong community resistance defeated a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal on its shores. Humboldt Bay's historical industrial uses have resulted in many contaminated sites that continue to impact water quality today. Dioxin, heavy metals, petroleum products, and other contaminants persist in areas where they were used in the industrial era, and these contaminants continue to impact Humboldt Bay through storm water, ground water, and other discharges.
The past use of wood preservatives such as pentachlorophenol (also known as "penta") at the dozens of lumber mills that once lined the shores of the Bay and its sloughs have led to the release of contaminants such as dioxins and furans. In 2006, Humboldt Baykeeper successfully petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to add Humboldt Bay to California's Threatened and Impaired Waters list under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act due to the presence of dioxin in the tissue of fish and shellfish in the Bay. As a result, Humboldt Bay is now listed as impaired by dioxin, a legal status that continues to facilitate action and clean-up.
Cleaning up Humboldt Bay and Monitoring Development
Humboldt Baykeeper had long known that dioxin from past industrial uses around Humboldt Bay was plaguing water quality in our community. In 2006, along with Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Humbold Baykeeper filed a CWA suit against the Simpson Timber Company for the continued discharge of contaminants including dioxin into the Bay at their former plywood mill site. Located at the foot of Del Norte Street in Eureka, the former mill site and an adjacent tidally influenced channel were discharging superfund levels of dioxin directly into Humboldt Bay.
Through Humboldt Baykeeper's Toxic Initiative Program, this ongoing threat to Humboldt Bay was identified, and in accordance to the 2008 settlement, Simpson Timber has removed the source of the contamination and restored the wetland channel. Humboldt Baykeeper continues to monitor the results of the completed cleanup at Simpson Timber Company's former bayside mill. Recent sampling at the site shows continuing success of the remediation work in the tidal channel adjacent to the property.
Fishable, Drinkable, Swimmable Waters--Moving Towards our Goal
While the CWA provides a legal framework for citizens to combat pollution, direct watershed-stewardship is equally important for fishable, drinkable, and swimmable waters.
In 2005, Humboldt Baykeeper initiated a Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program that has since expanded from 9 to 35 monitoring sites ranging from the Elk River to the Little River. The program utilizes over 30 volunteers to monitor the health of local waterways. Sampling events are primarily used to identify hotspots, trends, and changes in current conditions that could prompt additional investigation. The program educates Citizen Monitors about water pollution and how to reduce such pollution through individual actions. The program was recently strengthened with input from scientific experts at Pacific Watershed Associates, and with those recommendations, we now have an improved sampling protocol for local waterways for 2012 and beyond.
Creating a community of clean water advocates is one of Humboldt Baykeeper's main goals. In 2009, Humboldt Baykeeper initiated an internship program in conjunction with Dr. Alison Purcell O'Dowd, Assistant Professor and Environmental Science Program Coordinator at Humboldt State University. Humboldt Baykeeper student interns study riparian and instream conditions in Widow White Creek, a tributary of the Lower Mad River in McKinleyville. Widow White Creek has been impacted by urbanization of 25% of its watershed, as well as logging and low-density residential development in the upper watershed. It historically supported coho salmon, steelhead trout, cutthroat trout, three-spine stickleback, and sculpins. First Flush monitoring, monitoring during the first big storm event of the year with a half an inch or more rainfall, over several years identified extremely high levels of fecal coliform in the creek, particularly at monitoring sites near residential and commercial areas.