Recommendations for Future Direction of the Sacramento River Watershed
Water Quality Management Program

G. Fred Lee & Associates
________________________________________
27298 E. El Macero Dr.
El Macero, California 95618-1005
Tel. (530) 753-9630 Fax (530) 753-9956
e-mail gfredlee@aol.com
web site: http://members.aol.com/gfredlee/gfl.htm
Please note the new area code for telephone and fax has been changed to 530

February, 1998

Jerry Troyan
Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District
8521 Laguna Station Road
Elk Grove, CA 95758

Dear Jerry:

Following up on your "Announcement of Workshop and Request for Input on Phase IV Funding" for the Sacramento River Watershed Program, I had a conflict with the February 24, 1998 workshop and therefore I was unable to attend. However, I am interested in this topic and, as you know, have been an active participant in suggesting approaches that should be considered in conducting this Program. Please find presented below my comments on the future direction of the Program. At this point, it is too early to define in detail the future direction since as of yet little data have been generated. My comments however, provide guidance on the overall approach that would accommodate any type of data that are developed. I am not clear as to what phase we are in now-- when Phase III starts and ends, etc. Therefore, the comments presented below which are directed to Phase IV may also be applicable to Phase III and other phases of the program.

Evaluation Monitoring as a Framework for
Water Quality Problem Identification and Management

In the spring of 1996, I suggested to the group that an Evaluation Monitoring approach be used as a framework for the first year's monitoring program. Evaluation Monitoring as developed by Dr. Jones-Lee and myself shifts the monitoring from chemical constituent concentrations and loads to finding real water quality problems and then focuses on determining their cause, defining the sources of the constituents responsible. This is the approach that we developed about 3.5 years ago for the work that we are now doing in Orange County on the Upper Newport Bay watershed. As discussed in our paper, "Assessing Water Quality Impacts of Stormwater Runoff," and in the presentation that I made at the SETAC National meeting last November, "Evaluation Monitoring for Stormwater Runoff Water Quality Impact Assessment and Management," both of which are available from our web site (http://home.pacbell.net/gfredlee/index.html), Evaluation Monitoring is a watershed-based, technical stakeholder-driven water quality problem definition and control program that could readily serve as the foundation for the Sacramento River Watershed Water Quality Management Program. Basically, this program focuses on the impacts of chemical constituents and pathogenic organisms indicators rather than determining their concentrations. Those familiar with water quality, aquatic chemistry and aquatic toxicology know that it is not possible to use chemical concentrations of the type that are typically generated in constituent source and ambient water monitoring to make a reliable assessment of the water quality impacts associated with the constituents measured. The exceedance of a water quality standard is not a reliable indication of a true water quality problem that would be of concern to the public. Many exceedances simply represent the overly protective nature of US EPA water quality criteria and state standards based on these criteria.

As a member of the US EPA peer review panel that reviewed the overall criteria development approach and as a member of several of the criterion document peer review panels, I can unequivocally state that the US EPA criteria would, in many if not all parts of the Sacramento River watershed, be overly-protective. If there was an infinite amount of money that could be spent to control chemical constituents within the Sacramento River watershed, then working toward a goal of achieving these criterion values would be appropriate, provided that there were not other significant social problems which needed funding. However, today, with a large number of social problems that need funds, and limited funding for water quality management, it is important to focus water quality management programs on solving real, significant water quality use impairments that significantly adversely impact the beneficial uses of a waterbody. By impairment of beneficial uses with respect to the aquatic life-related uses, I mean significantly alter the numbers, types and characteristics of desirable forms of aquatic life in a waterbody, cause aquatic organisms that are used as food to have excessive concentrations of hazardous chemicals in their tissue through bioaccumulation, and/or lead to other water quality use impairments, such as excessive growth of aquatic plants, low dissolved oxygen, etc.

Traditionally, water quality monitoring programs have focused on measuring the concentrations of a constituent and if the flow data are available, the load of the constituent passing a particular point and then try to extrapolate as to whether the constituent at a particular concentration is adverse to the beneficial uses of a waterbody. Toxicity to aquatic life is one of the primary areas of concern for many chemical constituents. Evaluation Monitoring, rather than trying to extrapolate from chemical concentrations to toxicity, focuses on measuring toxicity directly and then determining through TIEs the cause of the toxicity and through forensic analysis, its source. Similarly, rather than trying to extrapolate from chemicals that are potentially bioaccumulatable to excessive tissue residues, Evaluation Monitoring measures directly whether excessive bioaccumulation has occurred in edible organisms in the receiving waters and then where such problems are found, through forensic studies, determine the sources of constituents responsible. This is the approach that is being used to a considerable extent in the Sacramento River watershed first year monitoring through the implementation of the Evaluation Monitoring approach.

Review of Existing Water Quality Characteristic Data

As implemented in the Orange County, CA Upper Newport Bay watershed studies that are being conducted under my guidance, the first phase of the Evaluation Monitoring program was a critical review of the existing database on the water quality characteristics of Upper Newport Bay and its tributaries. Based on this review, information gaps were defined and the monitoring program then focused on filling these gaps. At this point, the Sacramento River Watershed Program, to my knowledge, has not yet conducted the critical comprehensive review of the existing database to determine what is known about water quality characteristics of the various parts of the Sacramento River watershed. While there were some general consideration of what data had and were being collected as part of setting up the first year's monitoring, there was no proper evaluation of existing databases. This is a significant deficiency in the existing Sacramento River Watershed Program.

The purpose of the data review would be to critically evaluate the reliability of the existing data and compile a credible database. Once this database has been compiled, then a critical review of the reliable data should be conducted to determine what water quality problems have been potentially identified as well as confirmed through the existing database. This should then be presented to the watershed stakeholders for their review and comment. Associated with that presentation should be a discussion of the areas that need future attention, with specific recommendations on the kind of monitoring program that should be conducted to fill the information gap. This situation should be addressed as soon as possible where a comprehensive report is provided on the existing water quality of the Sacramento River watershed. If it is not completed by the time Phase IV starts, it should be highest priority for work in Phase IV.

Once a comprehensive set of data from past studies as well as one year of monitoring conducted as part of the Sacramento River Watershed Program has been collected and a report prepared on this database, then a stakeholder-developed consensus should be formulated on what real water quality use impairments exist in the various parts of the Sacramento River watershed. When the water quality use impairment problems have been defined, then if the cause of these impairments has not been determined, site-specific studies should be undertaken to determine the cause, i.e. the specific chemical constituents responsible for the use impairments.

A use impairment should be a designated beneficial use impairment of the waterbody that is perceivable by the public. Not included in this definition is an exceedance of a water quality standard/objective. The water quality significance of exceedance of a water quality standard/objective should be addressed as a separate issue, where specific studies are conducted to determine the relationship between the exceedance of the objective and the impairment of the beneficial uses of the waterbody of concern for the public. Also specific evaluations should be made of the improvement in the designated beneficial uses of the waterbody that would accrue through controlling the input of the constituent responsible for the water quality objective exceedance to a sufficient extent to eliminate the exceedance so that it occurs no more than once every three years i.e. current CWA requirements. The emphasis in defining the cause of the water quality problem should not be on total constituent, such as total copper, cadmium, lead, etc., but on the specific forms of the constituent responsible for the toxicity, excessive bioaccumulation or other use impairment, such as available forms of nutrients that impact excessive fertilization of a waterbody.

When the specific constituents responsible for the use impairment have been identified, then through forensic studies, the specific sources of the constituents responsible for the use impairment should be determined. Again, the focus should not be on all sources of total copper or other constituents; it should be on those sources of copper, mercury, PAHs, etc. that are adverse to the beneficial uses of a particular part of the Sacramento River watershed. In summary, future efforts in the Sacramento River Watershed Program should be devoted to defining those areas of the watershed where there is a designated beneficial use impairment. The focus should initially be on the main stem and major tributaries of the Sacramento River. As problems in those areas are defined, then the water quality definition activity should shift to smaller tributaries.

A key component of the future Sacramento River Watershed Program should be devoted to the second phase of an Evaluation Monitoring program which focuses on determining the specific cause of the use impairment and the source of the specific constituents responsible for the use impairment. This information base will then provide the stakeholders and the regulatory agencies with the information they need to formulate a watershed-based water quality management program for specific areas of the Sacramento River watershed where there is a use impairment.

Addressing Exceedances of Water Quality Criteria/Standards

Another component of the future Sacramento River Watershed Program should be devoted to determination of what the exceedance of a water quality standard/objective means to the beneficial uses of a part of the watershed where the exceedance occurs and downstream waters. The US EPA water quality criteria and state standards (objectives) based on these criteria assume worst-case or near worst-case conditions in developing the specific chemical numeric values. The chemical constituents of potential concern are assumed to be in toxic/available forms and present in the vicinity of the organism for extended periods of time to cause chronic toxicity. The US EPA's regulatory approach, however, tends for many waterbodies, but not all, to over-regulate chemical constituents since many waterbodies contain constituents that detoxify or otherwise make unavailable, chemical constituents of concern. As a member of the US EPA peer review panel that helped develop the water quality criteria development approach and as an individual responsible for serving as an EPA peer reviewer for several specific constituents criteria documents, I know that the US EPA water quality criteria were never intended to be implemented as mechanical, not-to-be-exceeded values. The US EPA site-specific criterion adjustment approach, such as the Water Effects Ratio approach, only partially adjusts for the aquatic chemistry of constituents in aquatic systems that impact their toxicity/availability. This approach does not allow adequate time for chemical equilibrium to be reached and fails completely to address the key issue of the impact of the form of the constituent of concern added to the waterbody on its toxicity/availability.

The current implementation approach of assuming that US EPA water quality criteria are appropriate state standards leads to significant over-regulation of most regulated constituents, i.e. those constituents for which there is a water quality criterion, for most waterbodies. This will certainly be the case for much of the Sacramento River watershed. In some cases, much higher concentrations of constituents of concern can be present without adversely impacting the designated beneficial uses of the Sacramento River watershed as well as the Delta and other downstream waterbodies.

Formulation of Water Quality Management Programs

Once the true water quality problems have been defined and the source of the specific constituents responsible for the problem identified, then there is need to begin to formulate water quality use impairment management plans. As part of that formulation, there is need to incorporate high-quality current science and engineering into determining the potential benefits of controlling the input of a constituent responsible for a water quality use impairment to a particular degree on the beneficial uses of a particular part of a waterbody usually near the point of discharge/runoff (near field impacts) and on the overall beneficial uses of the waterbody (far field impacts). Typically today, water quality management programs for specific constituents in the current point source discharge management program as well as for watershed based water quality management programs are being formulated without adequate incorporation of aquatic chemistry and aquatic toxicology into the program. The mass load approach based on total constituent loads is an example of a technically invalid approach for formulating a watershed based water quality management program.

It is well known that not all sources of a constituent of concern contribute the constituent in toxic available forms. Further it is also well known that even a discharge of a toxic available form in one part of a watershed does not lead to that constituent being toxic/available throughout downstream waters. An example of this situation is copper in the Sacramento River system discharged by the Iron Mountain Mine. While there is toxicity due to copper near the point of discharge, this toxicity appears to be rapidly lost in the Sacramento River system. It is inappropriate to assume that the copper present in the Sacramento River system exceeds the copper water quality objective in adverse to the beneficial uses of all downstream waters associated with the exceedance of the objective.

While there is no doubt that the Iron Mountain Mine contributes to copper that is part of the cause of the water quality objective exceedances that occur in San Francisco Bay, the San Francisco Estuary Institute has recently published the results of the 1996 Regional Monitoring Program. This report indicates that after four years of monitoring which included fairly intensive toxicity testing using the same test organism as was used to develop the national as well as the San Francisco Bay site specific water quality objective, that the exceedance of the copper water quality objective is not associated with aquatic life toxicity in San Francisco Bay waters or sediments.

Several years ago I published a paper, "Aquatic Chemistry/Toxicology in Watershed-Based Water Quality Management Programs," which is available from my web site. This paper discusses the importance of using current readily available science and engineering into identifying water quality problems in a watershed and for formulating technically valid, cost-effective control programs for these problems. As discussed these control programs should focus on real significant water quality use impairments and not divert the limited financial resources available to chasing ghosts of problems that arise out of overly protective approaches associated with the US EPA's ill founded Independent Applicability Policy. This Policy requires that chemical specific numeric criteria/standards must be met for potentially toxic constituents even though properly conducted toxicity tests show that the constituents are in non-toxic, non-available forms. For further discussion of the inappropriateness of this Policy consult Lee and Jones-Lee, "Independent Applicability of Chemical and Biological Criteria/Standards and Effluent Toxicity Testing," as well as, "Appropriate Use of Numeric Chemical Concentration-Based Water Quality Criteria" both of which are available from my web site. From a watershed based water quality management program approach, the US EPA water quality criteria should be used as a trigger to conduct further work to define the water quality significance of exceedance of a water quality objective. An important component of future work in the Sacramento River Watershed Program should be directed to determining the water quality significance of the exceedance of a water quality objective. This would be important information in helping to prioritize water quality management programs within the watershed.

The true watershed management approach is designed to try to address the problem that exists today of the piecemeal approach toward regulation where a particular discharger that is regulated through a NPDES permit must achieve discharge limits, even though unregulated dischargers can discharge the same constituents to the waterbody at equal or greater concentrations and not have to control their discharges. An example of this is the organophosphate pesticide situation where POTWs must control the Ceriodaphnia toxicity in their effluent. I have observed situations where POTWs could spend considerable money controlling this toxicity, yet have their effluent enter a stream where urban stormwater runoff contains the same organophosphate pesticides at toxic levels. The POTW's expenditure of funds will have no impact on the beneficial uses, since they are controlled primarily by stormwater runoff or, for that matter, agricultural runoff or atmospheric transport of these pesticides from agricultural use. There is little point in forcing one group of stakeholders to treat to a certain degree unless that treatment/control, in fact, results in a significant improvement in the beneficial uses of the receiving waters. The watershed management approach provides an opportunity to identify the real water quality problems that exist in a watershed, determine the cause of the water quality use problem and identify the sources of the constituents responsible. It also provides an opportunity for appropriate use of public financial and other resources to control the problems in a technically valid, cost-effective manner.

Ultimately, the Sacramento River Watershed Program will have to face the issue of formulating management approaches. It should start to face this issue in Phase IV through typical example data and situations which can be used as a basis of formulating approaches for implementation of pollution control programs. Developing an approach for addressing such problems before they are actually faced will provide the information base necessary to determine what additional information will be needed to formulate management programs in the most technically valid manner.

Water Quality Significance of Aquatic Life Toxicity

Another issue that will need to be addressed, hopefully starting immediately is the development of an approach for assessing the water quality significance of aquatic life toxicity of the type being found in the Sacramento River system. I have previously suggested to the various subcommittees (Monitoring and Toxics) and to Val Connor that there is need to organize an effort to provide guidance on how to determine what represents excessive aquatic life toxicity within the Sacramento River system that is adversely impacting the beneficial uses of this system. An expert panel should be appointed and provided with the necessary resources to begin to formulate approaches that can be brought to the stakeholders that can be used to determine the water quality significance of toxicity to certain organisms at certain locations. Once the overall guidance approach is defined, then site-specific application of this approach should be initiated for various parts of the watershed where toxicity has been identified and its magnitude extent and duration is potentially significant to the beneficial uses of the waterbody. There will almost certainly be need to conduct additional site-specific studies focusing on the relationship between measure aquatic life toxicity in tributary waters and mainstem waters on aquatic organism assemblages within these waters. This type of information will ultimately become the key information needed to determine whether measured toxicity is a significant cause of a water quality use impairment at any location within the Sacramento River system. I have previously indicated to Val that if there is interest, I would be happy to assume a leadership role in this effort.

If you or others have questions on my comments on the future direction of the Sacramento River Watershed Program, please contact me. I can also provide backup papers mentioned herein for those who wish to receive an original hardcopy of them.

Sincerely yours,

G. Fred Lee, PhD, DEE

GFL:jg

Reference as:"Lee, G.F., 'Recommendations for Future Direction of the Sacramento River Watershed Water Quality Management Program,' letter to J. Troyan, Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, Elk Grove, CA February (1998)." "

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