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Water Tortured

sea otter

Volunteers work to restore a threatened Monterey Bay and its rivers while lawmakers consider sweeping coastal reforms

By Christopher Weir

'YOU CAN ASK ANY KIND OF question you want to at this point," says Ellen Faurot-Daniels. "But without research, we're not going to have any answers." The question Faurot-Daniels and other marine conservationists are asking these days is "What's killing the sea otters?" After several years of curiously slow population growth, the Central Coast's sea otters have been declining for the past two years, according to annual surveys. Shoreline mortality counts have reached record highs.

Autopsies have revealed heightened amounts of infectious diseases. Also, a parasite that used to confine itself to otters' intestines now seems to be spreading throughout the animals' bodies, wreaking havoc.

In the absence of answers as to why these things are happening, speculation reigns.

One theory holds that otters' immune systems have been compromised by highly toxic contaminants which were churned up during floods in 1995. Studies on terns--shorebirds which share habitats with otters--show that following the floods, DDT was released into the Elkhorn Slough watershed. Subsequent reproductive deficiencies in terns were traced to DDT contamination.

But no such studies are yet available on otters.

Faurot-Daniels, science director for Friends of the Sea Otter, says it's unclear if exposure to trace metals or pesticides may be making otters vulnerable to diseases and the parasites. In which case, she says, "It's like having humans dying of a common cold."

Dr. Michael Martin, toxicologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, says contaminants are always suspect, but there hasn't been enough research to say for sure.

While long-lived and long-banned pesticides such as DDT remain potential and obvious culprits, new-generation pesticides haven't been closely studied, so nobody can say if they are to blame.

"There's a need for monitoring and surveillance of those compounds in more detail," Martin says. He adds that state testing protocols and techniques have not been adequately updated to account for the newer yet harder-to-detect compounds. "There's been no expansion of the program, no forward-looking, broad-spectrum evaluation," he says.

The uncertainty about the otters' predicament comes at a time when the entire Monterey Bay ecosystem, which includes all of the rivers and streams that flow into the bay, seems to be on the brink of either recovery or ruin on both the political and biological fronts.

Coho salmon and steelhead trout fight for survival--both were recently granted "threatened" status under the federal Endangered Species Act. From feces-ridden streams to depleted wetlands, from toxic urban runoff to debilitated spawning habitats, waterways in Santa Cruz County and surrounding areas seem to be gradually dying. That's the bad news.

The good news is that local, state and federal agencies, as well as several independent citizens' groups, have implemented a number of programs that promise profound help for regional watersheds. Meanwhile, a much-touted "armada" of legislation in Sacramento seeks to mend the coast's decimated environmental health.

But the increasing sea otter mortalities along the Santa Cruz and Monterey coastlines suggest that unknown threats to regional water quality may be emerging.

State Assemblyman Fred Keeley, sponsor of two cornerstone coastal bills, says the state must act now to address the situation in the Monterey Bay.

"We will simply lose huge amounts of our marine resources over the years if we wait until there's a crisis to deal with them," Keeley says. "We need more resource stewardship and less crisis management."

According to Faurot-Daniels, the crisis may already be upon us.

"What bothers me most is that if we're going to consider the sea otter as an indicator species of what's going on out there, then something is indeed going on out there," she says. "We just don't have a good handle on it yet."

Donna Meyers
Robert Scheer

Stream of Consciousness: Donna Meyers and the Coastal Watershed Council are waging local campaigns to protect the rivers like the San Lorenzo that feed the Monterey Bay.

Attack From All Sides

VARIOUS FORMS OF development have driven the steep historical decline in regional water quality. From timber harvesting to agriculture to urbanization, development has sabotaged the watershed infrastructure with toxic runoff, biological contamination and waterway sedimentation.

The local water-quality story begins in the upper reaches of the county's watersheds--particularly in the notoriously contaminated San Lorenzo River, which has become a virtual cesspool of fecal coliform and concentrated nitrates.

"Probably the biggest single overall factor is simply the growth of the area," says Diane Evans, director of environmental health for the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency. "The San Lorenzo River area was originally formed as a recreational summer community. But with the growth of the county that started in the '60s and '70s, people saw the mountains as a place of less-expensive housing. Many of what had been seasonal occupancies were converted to year-round homes for commuters as well as local residents.

"So when we had old cesspools that were never meant or designed or sized to be used by year-round people with washing machines, dishwashers and all of the other modern appliances," Evans adds, "those systems could not deal with the loading."

The county's San Lorenzo Valley Wastewater Management Program operates as an alternative to failed attempts to provide a sewer system in the region. The program's annual budget of $200,000 supports a variety of regulatory, management and educational activities.

According to Evans, the program is yielding positive results.

"It's probably most accurate to say what we've seen is an arresting of the continuing growth of water quality problems," she says. "We're starting to see improvements in isolated areas."

Other county watersheds, however, may not be so lucky as to receive such coordinated rehabilitation.

"What I'm hoping, but which is not likely, is to see us doing more of this kind of work in other areas of the county," Evans says. But she says she is not optimistic because Proposition 218, which was passed in 1996, limits the ability of programs like the San Lorenzo Valley's to levy taxes.

In place of government programs, volunteer-powered groups such as the Coastal Watershed Council are taking up the challenge. A nonprofit organization that coordinates weekly water testing, habitat surveys and restoration projects across the county, the watershed council focuses its efforts largely on keeping surface waters in the area viable for wildlife.

"From our perspective, sedimentation is probably the biggest problem," says Donna Meyers, the council's executive director. "It's not from one single source, but rather the accumulation of all these different land uses."

Those uses include road building, home development and timber harvesting. Meyers adds that the problem is exacerbated by the region's highly erodable soils. As for logging, she says, "It's not so much the present-day practices but the older logging roads that are causing a lot of erosion."

As sediments accumulate in creeks and streams, they throttle crucial spawning grounds for coho salmon, steelhead trout and other fish.

"In the last several years, we've seen some pretty serious sedimentation in all the various watersheds," Meyers says. She adds that more progressive development practices, coupled with restoration projects and public education, may eventually turn the situation around.

"I'm optimistic that people are starting to take a more ecosystem-based perspective," she says. "We're getting away from the piecemeal approach to solving our watershed problems."

Tamara Sheinkman and Karen Morales
Robert Scheer

Water Sprites: Tamara Sheinkman (left), leader of the Natural History Museum's Kids and Teens nature and science program for low-income/at-risk kids, shows San Lorenzo River critters to 8-year-old Karen Morales.

Sea Shell Game

IN THE DAYS WHEN LARGE, single-source sewer and industrial pollutant discharges were the norm, urban and agricultural runoff were largely an afterthought. Today, these so-called "non-point sources" have taken center stage in the fight to protect near-shore waters from hazardous contamination.

On the agricultural front, non-point pollution is the aggregate mass of residual pesticides that migrate from farmlands and spill into streams. On the urban front, non-point pollution is comprised mainly of the toxic metals, oils and waste that are washed from municipal infrastructures and ultimately spewed into the bay via storm drains.

"We are being impacted by the 'thousand points of blight,' " says Vicki Nichols, executive director of Save Our Shores. "Non-point pollution is the most significant contaminant problem we face on the Central Coast."

Despite increasing reports of tidepool degradation, wildlife decline and human health problems near stormwater discharge areas, Nichols says, "There is very little funding on federal and state levels to deal with non-point pollution. We are still trying to grapple quantitatively with what's flowing into the bay, but we are definitely seeing the impacts."

Largely to get a handle on regional runoff problems and coordinate effective stormwater management programs, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is spearheading the Water Quality Protection Program. The program integrates 27 local, state and federal agencies, plus environmental groups and concerned businesses.

The degree to which these toxic contaminants are impacting bay water quality is largely unknown due to a lack of comprehensive water testing and research programs. While various government agencies conduct testing for a variety of pollutants--especially those of bacterial origin--their efforts tend to focus on known hot spots or problem areas.

Meanwhile, the state's most effective comprehensive water-monitoring effort--the Mussel Watch Program--has failed to maintain the steady data necessary for establishing background contaminant levels and sustaining broad analysis in the Monterey Bay region and beyond.

"In the last five years, the funding for Mussel Watch continuously declined until there was very little left," says Michael Thomas, an environmental engineer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Established in 1978 and conducted by the State Water Resources Control Board in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game, Mussel Watch--at least in theory--anchors bags of mussels at strategic points across the coastline, including Santa Cruz.

Since mussels are "filter feeders" that continuously absorb water and microorganisms, localized contaminants build up in their tissues over time. After a three-month period, the test mussels are analyzed for herbicide, pesticide and metals concentrations.

While funding for the program has diminished to the point of ineffectiveness, new developments promise to breathe new life into Mussel Watch and eventually provide a more comprehensive snapshot of contaminant levels in Monterey Bay.

In a recent $14 million settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric over doctored environmental data regarding Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Thomas says, the Regional Water Quality Control Board received $2.5 million for Mussel Watch, enough to restore and perpetuate the full program as originally conceived.

A pending bill introduced by state Sen. Bruce McPherson also seeks to appropriate $700,000 annually for Mussel Watch.

Swamped Statehouse

SCOTT HENNESSY, DIRECTOR of the Watershed Institute at California State University Monterey Bay, says, "The way we use water hasn't really been respectful of the natural environment. Whether it's residential, industrial or agricultural development, we have basically taken the water off the land."

The consequence of this robbery of nature, Hennessy says, has been the virtual annihilation of the local wetlands ecosystems that used to gird the bay's coastline.

In the Watsonville region, wetlands have been historically diked and drained to maximize agricultural land use. In the municipal areas of the Santa Cruz coast, the paving of crucial habitats and the general establishment of infrastructures that accelerate storm runoff into the bay and its estuaries have contributed to wetlands destruction. Everywhere, groundwater overdrafts and saltwater intrusions are also crippling wetlands.

The continued deterioration of regional wetlands has not only damaged the local food chain and reduced wildlife viability, but may also be impacting estuarine and bay water quality.

"Wetlands are superb places for sequestering toxic chemicals from industry, agriculture and urban runoff," Hennessy says. "They act as filters and chemical factories to help reduce and degrade harmful contaminants in the water."

The Watershed Institute, Hennessy says, coordinates wetlands habitat restorations across the Monterey Bay region, its 25-person staff working in conjunction with private landholders and public agencies to reestablish the functioning vitality of wetlands systems across the region.

While volunteer organizations like the Watershed Institute, the Coastal Watershed Council, Save Our Shores and perhaps a dozen others do their important work, the future of local and state marine resources may very well turn on the fate of sweeping legislation introduced by Assemblyman Keeley.

Keeley's AB 1000 proposes a $650 million coastal bond act that would fund critical habit acquisitions and ecosystem preservation along the California coast, while AB 1241 seeks to establish a Marine Resources Commission that would oversee comprehensive research efforts and proactive marine management policies. Both are "two-year" bills that will not go to ballot or vote until 1998.

According to Keeley, the bond act would replenish historic coastal-preservation funding sources that have been "completely exhausted." Among other things, he says, "For the first time in the state's history, the act makes a multi-million-dollar commitment to reversing non-point source pollution problems."

Keeley says that while the state Fish and Game commission and department supply the "main governance" of marine fisheries, their historic orientation is toward land-based marine management.

"Under the current law and regulations, they don't deal with an issue until it's a crisis," Keeley says. "So what's happened over the years is that they've moved from crisis to crisis. What we need to do is literally turn them around so that there is a governance structure regarding marine fisheries that has its sights set in a seaward direction. We need to take a more proactive approach to the management of our marine resources.

"The establishment of a Marine Resources Commission would ensure such an approach by compiling existing and future research to "build a sound marine science foundation upon which to make proactive decisions about the fisheries and management of marine resources."

Keeley adds that AB 1241 would also provide the tools and funds to fully implement those decisions.

For local conservationists, such legislation couldn't come a moment too soon. "We are seeing a lot of red flags," SOS's Vicki Nichols says. "We can ignore them and hope they go away, knowing deep down that the problems will get worse if we don't address them. Or we can choose to acknowledge these red flags and start dealing with them.

"We're at a critical juncture right now," she says, "and we need to understand how much is really at stake."

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From the Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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