What TMDLs are and how they work
In water quality circles, TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load (of pollutants) – that is, the amount of a given pollutant which a water body can absorb without causing a violation of an established Water Quality Standard. In California, Water Quality Standards are set by regional water quality boards and approved by the State Water Resources Board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Water Quality Standards are established in order to protect Beneficial Uses of water identified for each waterbody in what are known as Basin Plans. This is the manner in which the federal Clean Water Act and California’s Porter-Cologne Clean Water Act are implemented in California.
Once a waterbody – which can be a river, stream, spring, lake, pond or ditch – is identified as polluted (aka impaired) by a regional water board, a TMDL is supposed to be prepared. A TMDL identifies the amount of pollutant each polluter (in clean water speak a discharger) is currently delivering to the waterbody and how much pollutant the water body can accommodate from all dischargers without impairing beneficial uses. This last amount is then distributed among the polluters, that is, each discharger is given a limit on how much pollution he/she/it can discharge. Discharge is then supposed to be monitored to assure that pollution limits are not being violated.
In practice it works a bit differently. In some cases the “pollutant” is not directly discharged. Take temperature for example: If the temperature of water in a stream is too high to support beneficial uses polluters must reduce the temperature of water they discharge into it. For example, an irrigator could be required to reduce the temperature of irrigation water returned (discharged) to a stream. But those with land bordering the water body may be required to plant trees to shade the water even if they are not “discharging” directly to the stream.
When it passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress intended that non-point pollution – that is the pollution originating not from factory pipes and other “discrete conveyances” but from activities like construction, irrigation, stormwater, farming and ranching – would be eliminated through the TMDL process. But states have been slow to prepare TMDLs and where they have been prepared TMDLs have proven inadequate for reducing pollution and restoring beneficial uses. That is because Congress failed to require EPA or the states to actually implement the TMDLs they develop.
Fortunately, California law and regulation provides that Action Plans to implement TMDLs be developed by regional boards. When adopted by a regional board and approved by the State Water Board and EPA, these Action Plans become enforceable sections of regional Water Quality Basin Plans.
Klamath River Basin TMDLs: developed and developing
TMDLs to clean-up temperature, sediment and nutrient pollution have been adopted for the Scott, Shasta, Scott, Upper Trinity and Lost Rivers; a temperature, dissolved oxygen, nutrient and Microcystin TMDL is currently being developed for the Klamath River Mainstem. In spite of these plans, however, it remains unclear whether the pollution problems which plague the Klamath, Lost, Shasta and Scott will be cleaned up anytime soon.
There are a variety of reasons why TMDLs are not yet effectively cleaning up the Klamath River and its tributaries. Prime among these reasons is the question of bureaucratic will. Are clean-up plans already developed adequate; will clean-up plans yet to be developed be adequate? And even if the clean-up plans are good will they be enforced? Are the Northcoast Regional Water Board and its employees willing to put real teeth – real enforcement – behind Klamath River Basin pollution clean-up plans? Below we look at these issues for the Klamath River and its major tributaries.
Scott River conundrum: Will polluters regulate themselves?
In the Scott River Basin, the regional board acquiesced to pressure from irrigators, timber companies, ranchers and county supervisors when they decided to rely on the local Siskiyou Resource Conservation District (SisRCD) to implement the Scott River TMDL Clean-Up Plan. But the SisRCD board is comprised of the very individual landowners whom the TMDL seeks to prevent from discharging pollutants. So-called Voluntary Enforcement – polluters regulating themselves voluntarily - is an approach which has rarely if ever worked before and likely will not work on the Scott.
In the meantime, Coho salmon continue to slide toward extinction/extirpation in a watershed in which they once thrived. The Scott River should be the stronghold for Klamath Coho Recovery but it can’t fill that role until there is effective clean-up of the temperature, sediment and nutrient pollution which plagues the Scott River and its salmon.
Cowpies and Trampled Banks at Junction of Patterson & Crystal Creeks
The Lost River Sacrifice Zone
Once hydrologically disconnected from the Klamath except for very wet years, the
Because they were forced by a lawsuit, the EPA produced a TMDL for the
Another impediment to cleaning up the
Are they serious in the Shasta?
The Shasta River TMDL and Clean-up Plan is a lot better than those produced for the Scott and
While there appears to be real progress on the Shasta (in stark contrast to the Scott and
Cleaning the Klamath – Many questions remain
A TMDL and Action Plan are currently being developed by the Northcoast Regional Water Board for the Mainstem Klamath. The documents are supposed to address the serious pollution problems of the Mainstem: excessive nutrients (especially phosphorus), excessively high temperature, low dissolved oxygen, and Microcystin – a highly toxic break down product produced when certain species of blue green algae die and decompose.
A draft TMDL, draft Action Plan and supporting documentation for
North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board
5550 Skylane Blvd, Suite A
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
The technical nature of TMDLs makes it difficult for most members of the public to effectively participate in their development. But Action Plans to implement TMDL’s should be clear, practical and effective. Three common-sense provisions are listed below which – if they are included in the Klamath TMDL Clean-Up Plan and faithfully implemented - will go a long way toward cleaning up the Klamath River and restoring Klamath Salmon. KlamBlog suggests that concerned citizens cut, paste and send these suggestions to the North Coast Water Board (firstname.lastname@example.org). Ask the Board to include these provisions in the Action Plan for cleaning-up Klamath River water pollution:
- Prohibit Livestock from depositing their waste directly or indirectly into rivers and streams: Doesn’t it seem strange that we strictly regulate and control human waste in order to prevent it from entering streams while cattle and other livestock are allowed to poop and pee directly into those same streams and streambeds? Since there are many more livestock living in the
than there are people, this is the cause of much of the nutrient pollution which is killing the Klamath and its salmon and leading to the development of toxic Microcystin. Therefore, it makes sense to tell the Regional Water Board to prohibit livestock waste from being deposited directly into streams and streambeds. Landowners should also be required to prevent livestock they own from depositing waste in locations where it is likely to be delivered into streams and streambeds during high rainfall storm events. Let’s control livestock waste in the same way we control human waste. Klamath River Basin
- Prohibit discharge of irrigation return flows to rivers and streams unless 70% of suspended solids have been removed. Some of our irrigator friends will tell us this is impossible or too costly. But we have examples right here in the
where the practicality and low cost of measures to remove most suspended solids in agricultural waste water has been conclusively demonstrated. All that is needed in most cases is a small pond where nutrients suspended in the irrigation wastewater are allowed to settle out before the water is discharged into a river or stream. Klamath River Basin
- Restore the normative functioning of
Lower Klamath Lakein order to maximize removal of nutrients which would otherwise flow down the Klamath River. Studies conducted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service on Lower Klamath National Wildlife refuge have demonstrated that permanent and seasonal marshes can remove substantial amounts of nutrients from the water which flows through them. Historical studies indicate that Lower Klamath Lakefunctioned in this way before it was drained by whites, that is, Lower Klamath Lakeremoved some of the naturally high nutrient load in Upper Basinwater before that water flowed down into the . Restoring Klamath River Canyon Lower Klamath Lake’s normative functioning would also greatly enhance the ability of the Bureau of Reclamation to divert and store water for later release to enhance Klamath Riverflows and for flood control.
It remains to be seen whether the Klamath River TMDL and Action Plan will turn out to be an effective tool for restoring Klamath River water quality or only another paper process that does not lead to substantive improvements in water quality. Much will depend on whether tribes, fishing and environmental groups mobilize their membership and insist on an effective Klamath River Clean-Up Plan that includes actual prohibitions - like requiring that owners keep livestock waste out of our rivers and streams and clean up irrigation water before it is discharged into waterbodies – rather than just throwing more money at polluters for projects and studies without requiring them to actually stop polluting.