City disagrees with water quality plan set by EPA for Malibu Creek watershed; will conduct own study


City manager said the city ‘has concerns’ about the EPA’s methodology and was proceeding with a study that addresses this issue.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

The long awaited TMDLs, or total maximum daily loads, for the Malibu Creek watershed have been issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), calling for reductions in bacteria and the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous to protect the creek and Malibu Lagoon against oxygen-robbing algae and high bacteria concentrations likely to threaten human health.

Pollutant loading in the creek is generally related to a variety of sources, including urban runoff from Malibu and upstream communities, discharges of reclaimed water from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s Tapia wastewater treatment facility in Malibu Canyon, septic tanks in Malibu and upstream livestock facilities, lawns and golf courses.

The fact that the City of Malibu solely uses septic systems, including all the businesses in the area, may be why the city is disagreeing with the EPA’s study.

Catherine Kuhlman, acting water division director for the EPA’s southwest region, observed that “aggressive action” from all these sources will be required to clean up the creek and “accelerate restoration of this unique watershed.”

Malibu City Manager Katie Lichtig said the city had not yet received a copy of the new standards, but indicated Malibu is concerned about the environmental quality of both the creek and lagoon and “wants to be partners with the regulatory agencies” in the effort to clean up both bodies of water.

In response to a comment by Dick Smith, TMDL Team Leader for Region 9, that Malibu had disagreed with the EPA’s assessment of nutrient and bacteria loading from city septic systems, Lichtig said the city “has concerns” about the EPA’s methodology and was proceeding with a study that addresses this issue.

“We want to make scientifically sound, fact-based decisions,” Lichtig said, “and this study is part of the process.”

“If the city’s correct in its assessment of the loading from Malibu septic systems,” Smith said, “it won’t have to do so much to comply with the new standards.”

Elsewhere there were mixed reactions to the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous set by the EPA, which are subject to implementation procedures yet to be developed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The board’s executive officer, Dennis Dickerson, said his organization would be sorting out concerns and was likely to develop its own set of TMDLs, based in part on information obtained from Malibu’s groundwater study.

“It will helpful to have more information about sources of con-tamination,” Dickerson said.

TMDLs are used to clean up waterways that are too polluted to support basic uses such as swimming and wildlife habitat. The current effort resulted from a 1999 suit brought against the agency by a coalition of environmental groups, including Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, that were concerned the EPA wasn’t doing enough to protect the region’s aquatic resources.

The water quality control board was originally mandated to develop the TMDLs but passed off the responsibility to the EPA when it realized it couldn’t meet the March 22, 2003 deadline required by the 1999 court decision.

Arlene Post, spokesperson for the Las Virgenes water district, likely to be the most affected by what the EPA is calling for, said the district “appreciated” two aspects of the agency’s report; first that it didn’t identify the Tapia facility as a main source of nutrient contamination in the creek and that it differentiated between winter and summer conditions, defining the seasons in the same terms as the facility’s current discharge permit.

But if the EPA standards become the basis of the water quality control board’s implementation strategies-or if the water board decides to specify a lower level of nutrient concentration-the Tapia facility will be forced to make both facility and procedural adjustments.

“The current standard is 10 milligrams per liter of nitrogen annually,” explained Randall Orton, the district’s research conservation manager. “The new standard would be 8 milligrams in the winter and 1 milligram during the summer dry months.”

“Recycled water is the crucial issue for us,” Post said. “The use of reclaimed water for irrigation is a major component of our creek discharge-avoidance program.”

Currently the facility avoids discharging reclaimed water into Malibu Creek by selling it for irrigation. Since the new regulations call for no nitrogen or phosphorous in any reclaimed runoff that would reach the creek, Post said this may make it difficult for the district to continue to sell reclaimed water.

Commenting on a draft of the EPA standards, which called for the same nutrient levels as in the final report, watchdog organization Heal the Bay said the per liter nitrogen standards are too high to protect Malibu Creek and Lagoon from sources of nutrients that enter the system above the Tapia reclamation facility, including fertilizer from lawns and golf courses and runoff associated with livestock.

“There’s a major disconnect between admitting the impairment of the creek and not doing something about it,” said Staff Scientist Shelley Luce.