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Closet of Skeletons

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Robert Scheer

Seaing Is Believing: Vicki Nichols, head watchdog of Save Our Shores,realizes that while storm runoff is the sanctuary's biggest threat, concerned conservationists are really undermined by lack of data and consistent ways of gathering data on pesticides and heavy metals in the bay.

Pesky pollution still haunting the Monterey Bay Sanctuary

By Christopher Weir

Definition: A sanctuary is either a holy place or a realm of refuge and shelter. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary conjures up both ideas, evoking a sacred, safe and inviolate ocean sphere from its shimmering surface to its darkest depths--all by federal decree. That's where fantasy and reality collide.

The leviathan of mainland infrastructure hasn't really adjusted to the sanctuary notion. Every winter storm along the coast still unleashes a watershed cocktail laced with toxic metals, oil, fertilizers, pesticides, sewage, asbestos and just about everything else that lurks in gutters and streams. The worst squalls can penetrate agricultural topsoil and dredge up sediments tainted with the bad-boy chemicals of yesteryear, such as DDT and chlordane.

So, sanctuary or not, let's just say you don't want to hang out underneath those storm drains angling from the coastal cliffs of Santa Cruz.

"Overall, we have very good water quality, which supports the concept of a marine sanctuary," says Vicki Nichols, executive director of Save Our Shores, an independent marine conservation organization based in Santa Cruz. However, she says, storm runoff "is probably the largest threat to the water quality of the area. You have certain hot zones along the coast that are impacted by seasonal events, and that's where the real water-quality problems are emerging."

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Jay Swanson

Pooling Our Resources: While organized vigilance is the safest way to protect the sanctuary's resources--like these tidepools near Cambria--much of the problem can be mitigated by public education.

Complicating the matter are two factors that evade simple solutions. First, storm runoff is classified as "non-point." That is, it is not the result of a particular source or culprit, but rather a democratic sampling of the entire coastal watershed--rural, agricultural and municipal. Sorting it all out is still a cutting-edge challenge.

"We don't have a good testing regime for heavy metals or pesticides," Nichols says. "We are still trying to scrape together baseline data. The real problem is the lack of knowledge. Or even quantifying that knowledge."

In the absence of data, there are only suspicions and speculation about the severity of these pollutants.

"I encounter, in an alarming number, dead birds, dying birds ...," says Stan Welsh, a veteran Santa Cruz surfer and professor at San Jose State's School of Art and Design. "You come back the next day and there's a seal that's on the beach, dying. Someone will say it's due to a red tide or some other natural thing. But it never adds up to me."

Scatological White Noise

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992 as the largest of 11 marine sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Stretching for 350 miles from Cambria to Marin County, its 5,300 square miles of ocean surface feature an intricate and dynamic ecosystem and one of the largest marine canyons in North America.

"The event that we're participating in is as historic as the formation of the national park system," said Monterey County Supervisor Mark Del Piero four years ago. "The bay sanctuary will be bigger than Yellowstone Park and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Protecting it takes the same kind of foresight that protecting those areas did."

Foresight is one thing, translating it into policy is another. Only the Clean Water Act addresses the non-point-source pollution issue to any significant regulatory degree. Enforced on a statewide basis by regional water quality boards, the act's provisions do not require municipalities of less than 100,000 people to actively manage and test their stormwater infrastructures.

On an encouraging note, sanctuary staff members are orchestrating a regional Water Quality Protection Program, the goal of which is to "enhance and protect the sanctuary's chemical, physical and biological integrity."

"There are about 20 various federal, state and local monitoring programs," says Holly Price, the program's director. "They're all fairly spotty through cutbacks in funding and, I think, lack of coordination. We don't have a good handle on exactly what water-quality problems are occurring in various places and what kind of impacts there are, and that's something we'd like to improve on."

Price adds that non-point contaminants and flood-loosened sediments often deal harm in streams, lagoons and sloughs before they even reach the bay. "It's not just protecting the marine waters," she says of the program, "but protecting the waters that surround the sanctuary on land as well. ... We do see some toxins appearing in those areas, and sedimentation covering spawning beds of some of the fish species."

Price says, "One of the recommendations of our program has been that the small cities work together to develop a regional stormwater program." She credits Santa Cruz for being proactive in seeking solutions to non-point problems without federal or state legislative pressure.

Chris Schneiter, assistant director at Santa Cruz's Department of Public Works, says the city, in conjunction with the city of Monterey, the sanctuary, the Coastal Commission and the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, is applying grant money toward developing a model program for dealing with urban runoff.

"What we're trying to do is get ahead of the game by putting together something cities our size--and particularly coastal communities--could use to set up their program before it's mandated" by potential future legislation, Schneiter says.

In the sanctuary's pollution badlands, however, contaminated stormwater is by no means a lone cowboy.

Accidental point discharges--such as the recent and repeated storm-induced discharge of raw and partially treated sewage from the deteriorating Sewer Authority Mid-Coastside treatment plant in Half Moon Bay--pose a direct threat to the health of local surfers and other recreational ocean trippers as they waft through the waters. And sometimes the line between point and non-point becomes, in essence, scatological white noise: indistinct and indistinguishable.

Such is the case with dilapidated septic tanks and system fissures that leach raw sewage into the San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz's legendary bacterial hydrohazard. The Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Department is now spearheading a project that applies federal and state funds toward mitigating the problem.

As for the city of Santa Cruz, says Schneiter, all is well down under. "We've spent quite a bit of money following the earthquake to repair sewer pipes that had been damaged," he says. "There is always potential for some problems, and whenever we become aware of them ... we go out and make repairs as needed. We run a pretty tight ship."

Crude Awakening

Perhaps the most haunting of point-discharge specters is that of a crude oil spill. Every single day, tankers transport crude and refined oil products through the sanctuary. From Alaska to San Francisco to Southern California and back to the Golden Gate, it is simply safer and more convenient for tankers to avoid the impulsive waters of the deep sea. As evidenced by thousands of tanker runs along the California coast each year, oil transport remains an inextricable facet of the western energy matrix.

But, as Save Our Shores' Nichols says, "It only takes once." And that's where recent cutbacks at the Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC) loom large.

MSRC--a nonprofit cooperative catalyzed by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and funded by 65 oil companies, shippers and producers--prepares for environmental defense in the event of future spills. At the beginning of the year, MSRC cut itself back by 33 percent, claiming that the reduction of primarily "administrative" staff will not inhibit its response capability, which includes ships and cleanup crews.

Of more concern, however, is not necessarily if MSRC responds, but how. "On the best day, with all the responses available and the technology at hand," Nichols says, "your best bet is to clean up only 20 percent of the environment" after a major crude spill.

Eliminated in the cutbacks was MSRC's research division, a significant setback in efforts to modernize the generally arcane oil-cleanup technology (after investing $2 billion into the effort, Exxon was only able to recover 5 percent of the crude after its 1989 Valdez catastrophe).

Nevertheless, the oil-spill scenario is becoming more remote. The Oil Pollution Act and the California Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act are having a dramatic impact on the volume and frequency of tanker spills, says Dana Michaels, public affairs officer for Oil Spill Prevention and Response, an administrative and regulatory division of the California Department of Fish and Game. "They've tightened up the regulations so much on tankers and big marine fueling facilities. That's proof if they don't do it on their own, regulations do work."

So while the Valdez imagery persists, most oil-related water pollution is being flushed through street grates and blasted from nozzles.

"The Center for Marine Conservation estimates that only about 10 percent of the oil and petroleum products in the water is actually from the big tankers and big marine terminals," Michaels says. The remainder comes primarily from storm runoff and recreational boaters, she says. Negligent boat-fueling practices, for example, can wreak unseen havoc. "Two cups of fuel will spread out to cover a whole acre of water surface and kill all the plankton and crab larvae that live in that surface."

Proposed luxury-liner access to Monterey Bay, it's generally agreed, poses less of a fuel threat than the collective carelessness of small-watercraft operators.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are casting a wary eye toward the bullet-loaded dunes and shell-littered danger zones of Fort Ord. This Superfund site--the federal government's catch phrase for a toxic landscape slated for perpetually delayed cleanup--is a point source of baffling proportions. Beachfront firing ranges and incomplete record keeping have rendered parts of the former Army base mazes of lead slugs and unexploded artillery shells. "We're concerned about the storm drains at Fort Ord," Price says. "They have shown some elevated levels of various contaminants, and we'd like that to be investigated further."

But while distant sewage releases, potential oil spills and Superfund sites require methodical and organizational vigilance, Price notes that much of the non-point problem can be mitigated by public education in tandem with regulatory efforts.

"A real key role in the solution is letting people know about watersheds, how water flow picks up contaminants and what they can do to reduce them," she says. This means rethinking one's approach to yard chemicals, gutter dumping, oil leaks and other polluting activities. "We need to get the word out that this a very serious problem," Michaels adds.

Counter to the prospect of public education, Nichols says, is a general sense of environmental backlash in the corridors of power, which manifests itself in real and proposed cutbacks at various levels of government, and which ultimately impacts the ecoscape.

"Until people feel those cutbacks," she warns, "it won't really hit a balance."

So in this era of multibillion-dollar techno-mishaps--failed satellite experiments, weekly F-14 fighter jet wipeouts and so forth--chains continue to rattle in the oceanic attic.

"We're talking two-thirds of the Earth's surface here," Welsh says. "Quite frankly, it seems like we'd be more interested in the ocean than we are outer space."

By definition, a sanctuary is either a holy place or a realm of refuge and shelter. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary conjures up both ideas, evoking a sacred, safe and inviolate ocean sphere from its shimmering surface to its darkest depths--all by federal decree.

That's where fantasy and reality collide.

The leviathan of mainland infrastructure hasn't really adjusted to the sanctuary notion. Every winter storm along the coast still unleashes a watershed cocktail laced with toxic metals, oil, fertilizers, pesticides, sewage, asbestos and just about everything else that lurks in gutters and streams. The worst squalls can penetrate agricultural topsoil and dredge up sediments tainted with the bad-boy chemicals of yesteryear, such as DDT and chlordane.

So, sanctuary or not, let's just say you don't want to hang out underneath those storm drains angling from the coastal cliffs of Santa Cruz.

"Overall, we have very good water quality, which supports the concept of a marine sanctuary," says Vicki Nichols, executive director of Save Our Shores, an independent marine conservation organization based in Santa Cruz. However, she says, storm runoff "is probably the largest threat to the water quality of the area. You have certain hot zones along the coast that are impacted by seasonal events, and that's where the real water-quality problems are emerging."

Complicating the matter are two factors that evade simple solutions. First, storm runoff is classified as "non-point." That is, it is not the result of a particular source or culprit, but rather a democratic sampling of the entire coastal watershed--rural, agricultural and municipal. Sorting it all out is still a cutting-edge challenge.

"We don't have a good testing regime for heavy metals or pesticides," Nichols says. "We are still trying to scrape together baseline data. The real problem is the lack of knowledge. Or even quantifying that knowledge."

In the absence of data, there are only suspicions and speculation about the severity of these pollutants.

"I encounter, in an alarming number, dead birds, dying birds ...," says Stan Welsh, a veteran Santa Cruz surfer and professor at San Jose State's School of Art and Design. "You come back the next day and there's a seal that's on the beach, dying. Someone will say it's due to a red tide or some other natural thing. But it never adds up to me."

Dirty White Noise

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992 as the largest of 11 marine sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Stretching for 350 miles from Cambria to Marin County, its 5,300 square miles of ocean surface feature an intricate and dynamic ecosystem and one of the largest marine canyons in North America.

"The event that we're participating in is as historic as the formation of the national park system," said Monterey County Supervisor Mark Del Piero four years ago. "The bay sanctuary will be bigger than Yellowstone Park and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Protecting it takes the same kind of foresight that protecting those areas did."

Foresight is one thing, translating it into policy is another. Only the Clean Water Act addresses the non-point-source pollution issue to any significant regulatory degree. Enforced on a statewide basis by regional water quality boards, the act's provisions do not require municipalities of less than 100,000 people to actively manage and test their stormwater infrastructures.

On an encouraging note, sanctuary staff members are orchestrating a regional Water Quality Protection Program, the goal of which is to "enhance and protect the sanctuary's chemical, physical and biological integrity."

"There are about 20 various federal, state and local monitoring programs," says Holly Price, the program's director. "They're all fairly spotty through cutbacks in funding and, I think, lack of coordination. We don't have a good handle on exactly what water-quality problems are occurring in various places and what kind of impacts there are, and that's something we'd like to improve on."

Price adds that non-point contaminants and flood-loosened sediments often deal harm in streams, lagoons and sloughs before they even reach the bay. "It's not just protecting the marine waters," she says of the program, "but protecting the waters that surround the sanctuary on land as well. ... We do see some toxins appearing in those areas, and sedimentation covering spawning beds of some of the fish species."

Price says, "One of the recommendations of our program has been that the small cities work together to develop a regional stormwater program." She credits Santa Cruz for being proactive in seeking solutions to non-point problems without federal or state legislative pressure.

Chris Schneiter, assistant director at Santa Cruz's Department of Public Works, says the city, in conjunction with the city of Monterey, the sanctuary, the Coastal Commission and the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, is applying grant money toward developing a model program for dealing with urban runoff.

"What we're trying to do is get ahead of the game by putting together something cities our size--and particularly coastal communities--could use to set up their program before it's mandated" by potential future legislation, Schneiter says.

In the sanctuary's pollution badlands, however, contaminated stormwater is by no means a lone cowboy.

Accidental point discharges--such as the recent and repeated storm-induced discharge of raw and partially treated sewage from the deteriorating Sewer Authority Mid-Coastside treatment plant in Half Moon Bay--pose a direct threat to the health of local surfers and other recreational ocean trippers as they waft through the waters. And sometimes the line between point and non-point becomes, in essence, scatological white noise: indistinct and indistinguishable.

Such is the case with dilapidated septic tanks and system fissures that leach raw sewage into the San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz's legendary bacterial hydrohazard. The Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Department is now spearheading a project that applies federal and state funds toward mitigating the problem.

As for the city of Santa Cruz, says Schneiter, all is well down under. "We've spent quite a bit of money following the earthquake to repair sewer pipes that had been damaged," he says. "There is always potential for some problems, and whenever we become aware of them ... we go out and make repairs as needed. We run a pretty tight ship."

Crude Awakening

Perhaps the most haunting of point-discharge specters is that of a crude oil spill. Every single day, tankers transport crude and refined oil products through the sanctuary. From Alaska to San Francisco to Southern California and back to the Golden Gate, it is simply safer and more convenient for tankers to avoid the impulsive waters of the deep sea. As evidenced by thousands of tanker runs along the California coast each year, oil transport remains an inextricable facet of the western energy matrix.

But, as Save Our Shores' Nichols says, "It only takes once." And that's where recent cutbacks at the Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC) loom large.

MSRC--a nonprofit cooperative catalyzed by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and funded by 65 oil companies, shippers and producers--prepares for environmental defense in the event of future spills. At the beginning of the year, MSRC cut itself back by 33 percent, claiming that the reduction of primarily "administrative" staff will not inhibit its response capability, which includes ships and cleanup crews.

Of more concern, however, is not necessarily if MSRC responds, but how. "On the best day, with all the responses available and the technology at hand," Nichols says, "your best bet is to clean up only 20 percent of the environment" after a major crude spill.

Eliminated in the cutbacks was MSRC's research division, a significant setback in efforts to modernize the generally arcane oil-cleanup technology (after investing $2 billion into the effort, Exxon was only able to recover 5 percent of the crude after its 1989 Valdez catastrophe).

Nevertheless, the oil-spill scenario is becoming more remote. The Oil Pollution Act and the California Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act are having a dramatic impact on the volume and frequency of tanker spills, says Dana Michaels, public affairs officer for Oil Spill Prevention and Response, an administrative and regulatory division of the California Department of Fish and Game. "They've tightened up the regulations so much on tankers and big marine fueling facilities. That's proof if they don't do it on their own, regulations do work."

So while the Valdez imagery persists, most oil-related water pollution is being flushed through street grates and blasted from nozzles.

"The Center for Marine Conservation estimates that only about 10 percent of the oil and petroleum products in the water is actually from the big tankers and big marine terminals," Michaels says. The remainder comes primarily from storm runoff and recreational boaters, she says. Negligent boat-fueling practices, for example, can wreak unseen havoc. "Two cups of fuel will spread out to cover a whole acre of water surface and kill all the plankton and crab larvae that live in that surface."

Proposed luxury-liner access to Monterey Bay, it's generally agreed, poses less of a fuel threat than the collective carelessness of small-watercraft operators.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are casting a wary eye toward the bullet-loaded dunes and shell-littered danger zones of Fort Ord. This Superfund site--the federal government's catch phrase for a toxic landscape slated for perpetually delayed cleanup--is a point source of baffling proportions. Beachfront firing ranges and incomplete record-keeping have rendered parts of the former Army base into mazes of lead slugs and unexploded artillery shells. "We're concerned about the storm drains at Fort Ord," Price says. "They have shown some elevated levels of various contaminants, and we'd like that to be investigated further."

But while distant sewage releases, potential oil spills and Superfund sites require methodical and organized vigilance, Price notes that much of the non-point problem can be mitigated by public education in tandem with regulatory efforts.

"A real key role in the solution is letting people know about watersheds, how water flow picks up contaminants and what they can do to reduce them," she says. This means rethinking one's approach to yard chemicals, gutter dumping, oil leaks and other polluting activities. "We need to get the word out that this a very serious problem," Michaels adds.

Counter to the prospect of public education, Nichols says, is a general sense of environmental backlash in the corridors of power, which manifests itself in real and proposed cutbacks at various levels of government, and which ultimately impacts the ecoscape.

"Until people feel those cutbacks," she warns, "it won't really hit a balance."

So in this era of multibillion-dollar techno-mishaps--failed satellite experiments, weekly F-14 fighter-jet wipeouts and so forth--chains continue to rattle in the oceanic attic.

"We're talking two-thirds of the Earth's surface here," Welsh says. "Quite frankly, it seems like we'd be more interested in the ocean than we are outer space.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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