“Without data, we wouldn’t have much to say about the State of the Estuary,” said James Cloern, as he kicked off the second session of Wednesday’s morning plenaries on water quality. After thirty years of watching the ups and downs in the data streams coming in from various monitors in the Estuary, this US Geological Survey senior scientist is an avid proponent of public investment in collecting data on the water, in the water, over decades, and on a regular basis. His newest conclusion, after reviewing the latest trends in phytoplankton biomass and suspended sediment concentrations, is that the Bay’s historic resistance to nutrient pollution is weakening.
“The Estuary’s resistance comes from strong tides, high turbidity, and fast grazing [of algal blooms] by clams, but I’ve seen four signs that the Bay could now be on a trajectory toward the kinds of impairments seen in other nutrient-rich estuaries,” said Cloern.
Cloern showed slides of “dead zones” in East Coast estuaries by way of example. He explained that many estuaries have been enriched with nutrients derived from fertilizer runoff, fossil fuel combustion, and sewage discharge. Nutrient enrichment promotes fast production of phytoplankton biomass, he said, and in places such as Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay the metabolism of that biomass depletes oxygen from water and creates dead zones devoid of fish and shellfish. Research shows that San Francisco Bay receives higher nutrient loads than these estuaries, primarily from river inputs to the North Bay and treated sewage in South Bay, yet it does not suffer from high phytoplankton biomass or low oxygen because it has attributes that give resistance.
Following the data record, however, Cloern detected the first signs of weakening resistance in the South Bay starting in 1999. He noted a decline in clam abundance, a red tide in 2004, the presence of new harmful species in the phytoplankton community, and a significant jump in phytoplankton biomass. Where blooms mainly used to occur only in spring, Cloern and his team have more recently been recording these events in summer and autumn, too. “These kinds of events always occur during heat waves with calm winds. Waters mix very slowly, leading to exceptional blooms, and sometimes to red tides,” he said, showing pictures of crimson algae clouding grey waters off the side of the USGS research vessel Polaris.
Despite the rise in blooms, and the presence of plankton species that can be toxic if consumed by clams and fish, Cloern said he’d seen no evidence of associated fish mortality in San Francisco Bay so far.
But alarm bells are ringing based on these kinds of observations. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is now developing a nutrient strategy for the Bay in partnership with the Regional Monitoring Program, wastewater dischargers, and the scientific community. “Much is at stake because the capital costs of nutrient removal could be $5-10 billion,” said Cloern, referring to the increased levels of wastewater treatment and pollution prevention required to tackle the problem. Other factors planners may need to keep in mind in developing the strategy are the opening of large new areas of salt ponds to tidal action, some of which could be incubators of harmful species of phytoplankton. Changes in ocean conditions also should be considered. “San Francisco Bay is connected to the shelf waters outside the Golden Gate where upwelling occurs, so the ocean can be a source of phytoplankton coming into the Bay,” he said. “The Estuary is in a continual state of evolution, and there is great uncertainty about how the future will unfold,” Cloern concluded.
Nutrients aren’t the only unknown worrying those monitoring water quality and ecosystem health in the San Francisco Estuary. A whole suite of chemicals now being used in homes, businesses, industries and farms today aren’t yet even possible to detect, let alone plan for or prevent from entering the estuary. The next speaker, Derek Muir, came all the way from Environment Canada in Toronto to explain why.
Muir, a senior research scientist, defines these chemicals of emerging concern (CECs) as any synthetic chemical that is not regulated or commonly monitored in the environment but that also has the potential to enter the environment and cause adverse ecological or human health impacts. He commended San Francisco Bay’s Regional Monitoring Program for being one of the first on the continent to spotlight CECs, and guesstimated that globally there could be as many as 73 million known organic and inorganic substances, 19 million of which might actually be commercially available, 308,000 of which are inventoried and regulated, and only 500 of which might be routinely measured in environmental media (see slide).
“It’s misleading to think everything on the list of known chemicals is actually in commerce,” he said. For example, of the 73 million known chemicals on one list or another, only 30,000 are produced in quantities of more than one ton per year worldwide. The lists, and who compiles them, turn out to be important in getting a handle on the problem and prioritizing chemicals for more scrutiny. California and Oregon lead the world in making authoritative lists of safe or problematic chemicals.
Muir focused the rest of his talk on new tools for screening chemical safety. For example, a chemical’s potential for persistence, bioaccumulation, biodegradability, and adverse effects can be assessed based on its molecular structure using widely available quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs). “Our computer models tell our chemists what to look for in terms of molecular structure,” he said.
According to Muir, large lists of industrial organic chemicals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals in Europe and the USA have already been screened and categorized by QSARs. These studies, as well as ongoing priority setting by chemical regulators in the US EPA, individual US states, Canada, the European Union, Japan and other countries suggest that about three percent of about 100,000 substances screened so far may be of concern.
“Not everything worth measuring is measurable; nor is everything measured worth measuring,” said Muir, quoting a US EPA maxim. “It’s easy to get off on tangents. But what we have now is a convergence of information which will help us rule out some chemicals.”
Like every good scientist, Muir couched his words with caveats, pointing out that most screening exercises do not include the possible degradation products, byproducts, and impurities of chemicals. He ticked off a number of other problems with current screening approaches, including the focus on registered chemicals. He also noted that many industrial chemicals may never be released into the environment, whereas many low volume personal care products like estrogen and antimicrobials, as well as pesticides, are regularly released into surface waters via wastewater or runoff.
The good news is that despite the challenges, there is a relatively large international effort to develop new tools for rapid screening of chemical toxicity, and to improve QSARs. “Screening can be successful if you have a tiered approach, good instrument technology, and good computer models,” said Muir. (See also afternoon Water Quality session on CECs).
The final speaker of the Wednesday plenary was Debbie Raphael, director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. She radiated pep and purpose from the podium, as she announced a new tool in the water quality toolbox: California’s groundbreaking Safer Consumer Product Regulations, which went into effect in fall 2013. She also highlighted a new era of partnership, supported by Governor Jerry Brown, “who really pushes partnership,” she said. According to Raphael, many voices contributed to the final form of the regulations over the five years since the underlying law was enacted.
The regulations identify 1,200 chemicals known to be problematic for human health or the environment. Many of the chemicals are contaminants of concern for California’s water bodies, such as triclosan in personal care products, copper in marine paint, and coal tar in pavement sealants, to name just three. Using this list, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is identifying specific “Priority Products” formulated using one or more of these chemicals, said Raphael. Manufacturers who wish to sell a “Priority Product” into California must either reformulate the product or justify the continued use of the chemical or chemicals of concern by submitting a robust Alternatives Analysis. “This is a powerful tool for public agencies and nonprofits trying to achieve source control of water contaminants,” said Raphael.
Raphael described the paradigm shift created by the alternatives analysis requirement and the mandate to avoid “regrettable substitutes,” where a banned substance is replaced with an equally harmful one. “This regulation shifts the focus. Instead of asking, ‘Is it legal to put this chemical in this carpet?,’ the new questions are ‘Is it safe? And is it necessary?’” The burden of proof is on the manufacturer. “Often the answer is ‘no,’ and often there are safer alternatives. We’re not telling them how to design their product, we’re just asking them to justify their design decisions,” says Raphael.
In general, the regulations are set up in a way that allows affected industries and communities of concern to continue to weigh in. They’re also designed so that water quality, and the health of California’s aquatic ecosystems, are priorities. Products on the market in California have to meet special requirements, just as cars have to be more efficient and less polluting in the Golden State, among other groundbreaking examples. “So it’s not about where it’s made, it’s about whether you want to sell it here,” says Raphael.
Raphael’s department plans to keep in close touch with water quality regulators about what chemicals or activities are giving them the most “heartburn.” She wants to ensure the two state programs intersect. “When we look at the Bay, we see its beauty and how much we enjoy it, but we also know there’s stuff in it we don’t want in it. This little safer consumer product regulation is really wanting to be at the table with you,” she said, looking out at the audience of engineers, scientists, resource managers and regulators.
Potential threats to the program on the horizon include resource limitations, lack of information on chemical hazards and exposure pathways, and pre-emption at the federal level. For the moment, however, there are signs that the marketplace is responding to the new initiative. Raphael recently saw an article on safer adhesives in Floor Covering Weekly, for example. “The world is watching,” she said.
Between plenaries, Friends of the San Francisco Estuary presented five awards for outstanding environmental projects in 2013. Recipients included California State Parks for the Yosemite Slough Restoration; the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture and other partners for the RMSAR designation of the Estuary as the 35th US wetland of international importance; the East Bay Regional Park District for their new Big Break Regional Shoreline interpretive center on the Delta, and their tidewater service area outreach project in East Oakland, educating local communities and school children; and the Western Recycled Water Coalition whose 22 member agencies and 25 projects recycle 120,000 acre feet of water annually.