Klamath River clean-up takes a step forward


On January 4th the EPA announced that it had adopted a clean-up plan for the California portion of the Klamath River Basin. Known officially as a TMDL (an acronym for total maximum daily load, or the total amount of pollution a water body can handle in one day without exceeding legal limits), the clean-up plan was previously approved by the State of California. Its publication brings to end litigation begun in the 1990s which led to the adoption of pollution clean-up plans for 17 Northwest California rivers and streams.  I represented one of the organizations in the litigation and I've been involved as a stakeholder in the development of Klamath River Basin TMDL cleanup plan.

This type of cleanup plan is the main method under the Clean Water Act for cleaning up what are called “non-point sources” of pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, non-point sources include urban stormwater run-off and agricultural pollution (dairy waste, livestock waste and irrigation return flows). They are the #1 reason at least 40 percent of the US rivers, lakes, and estuaries that have been surveyed are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming. Returning US waters to the point that they are “fishable and swimmable” is a major goal of the Clean Water Act, which was adopted in the 1970s.

While federal and state officials and many environmentalists lauded the Klamath clean-up plan, others urged caution. The Klamath River TMDL approved today identifies agricultural operations as the #1 source of Klamath River pollution and such sources have proven very difficult to bring into compliance with clean water laws. The main problem is that, while the Clean Water Act requires development of TMDL Plans, the federal law lacks an enforcement mechanism to make states implement the plans. 


Agricultural waste-water is pumped into Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and eventually to the Klamath River


In California, however, the state’s own clean water act requires development not only of a TMDL but also adoption of an implementation plan. The implementation plan for the Klamath River was adopted by the State of California in September of 2010. 

Roughly 40 percent of the Klamath River is located in Oregon, and - as the TMDL documents - much of the agricultural pollution found in the Klamath River originates there. Oregon has released a draft TMDL for the Upper Klamath River Basin and EPA expects to adopt that plan next January. But unlike California, Oregon does not provide a mechanism for implementing TMDL clean-up plans. Instead that state relies on voluntary compliance via farm and ranch plans overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

A recent attempt by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to put teeth into Oregon TMDLs was beaten back by agricultural interests. Nationwide, the agriculture industry resists regulation by environmental agencies. The industry has been successful in most parts of the country in having environmental compliance authority transferred to agencies it considers friendly toward agriculture. Environmentalists claim these agencies do not have the will to enforce environmental laws and regulations.

At the federal level, farmers and ranchers prefer the Natural Resource Conservation Service which many environmentalists see as a “captured agency” whose main allegiance is to the agricultural producer rather than to the environment.

The transfer of non-point Clean Water Act authority to agencies which are soft on agriculture may be one reason none of the nation’s highest profile and longest standing water quality restoration plans have been successful. Whether the focus is clean-up of Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades or the Great Lakes, optimistic clean-up statements like those heard these days on the Klamath have proven grossly overstated. Clean-up of agricultural pollution in these regions has been elusive and partial at best. 

The Klamath River at Orleans - Poor water quality is a major factor in the decline of Klamath River salmon fisheries

While some Klamath River clean water champions are among those praising the Klamath clean-up plan, most are not celebrating. They know that the struggle for a “fishable and swimmable” Klamath River will continue as do efforts to clean-up many other US water bodies. The struggle takes place in countless meetings and over items such as the operative language included or omitted from a host of sub-plans, waivers, waste discharge requirements and permits.

Large national groups declare that the battle is over and the struggle won when clean-up plans are adopted. They harvest their press clips and move on. But grassroots Klamath River activists – like their counterparts across the US - know that when the plan is adopted their work has only just begun. It is these grassroots activists – most of whom are volunteers – who will supply the muscle and the will agency bureaucrats need to translate the Klamath clean-up plan into real improvement in Klamath River water quality.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Anonymous says:
Jan 06, 2011 10:01 PM
The main problem with TMDL enforcement is that there are few regulatory mechanisms for getting compliance on non-point source pollution. In other words, farmers don't need permits in most cases. However, California law (Porter-Cologne Act) does not formally exempt irrigation return flows from agriculture, which is officially exempt under the Clean Water Act. In theory California farmers can be subject to Waste Discharge Permits (I don't know about Oregon). Is there any discussion of permits or discharge requirements for non-point sources on the Klamath? If you want to know more about my opinion on non-point sources, look here: http://environmentalpolicy.ucdavis.edu/blog/2010/12/158
Anonymous says:
Jan 07, 2011 01:29 PM
This essay (blog?) piece seems all too typical of those from Mr. Pace in that it's largely absent any really useful information. Applying the concept of TMDL's to a generic term like 'pollutant' is about as useful as the hind teats on a boar.

TMDL's are specific to different kinds of physical and chemical properties of water and most are from different sources, hence enforcement is not a simple process of finding the culprits and stopping them. Just as an example, the irrigation return water issue tends to be associated with eutrophication of the water system but not necessarily with heavy metal contamination (mines) or sediment input (roads). And my understanding of the fish problem on the Klamath is that a large part of it is associated with elevated temperatures from decreased flow rates and decreased dissolved oxygen (tied to the temperature and to algal blooms) adding stress to the fish which makes them more vulnerable to parasites and diseases.

Any enforcement policy to meet the specific TMDL's will have to be targeted towards specific chemical or physical properties -- there is no blanket approach that is going to work -- it will have to be flexible and recognize the social and economic issues as well as the complex nature of the Klamath drainage itself. I'm all for working toward restoring the anadromous fish populations on the Klamath but let's figure out the specifics and work on them rather than decrying the effort to do so.

Anonymous says:
Jan 13, 2011 06:30 PM
Mark asked: "Is there any discussion of permits or discharge requirements for non-point sources on the Klamath?"

The answer is "yes" - the North Coast Water Quality Control Board is responsible for implementation. They plan to use Waste Discharge Requirements (for example, to address sediment pollution from unpaved logging roads on large industrial timber holdings)and conditional waivers (for example, for irrigated Ag and livestock grazing).

However, NCWQCB staff have shown reticence toward enforcement. For example, there is one polluted agricultural discharge in the Scott River (a Klamath tributary) about which I have filed complaints for about ten years. The NCWQCB tested the discolored discharge and found it was polluted. There has been nothing but talk since then and the polluted discharge continues. THAT is why I believe citizen activists must identify pollution in violation of the clean-up plan and insist that those responsible actually clean it up.

Doc's understanding of Klamath pollution is fragmentary. While flows are a factor, the dissolved oxygen problem is the result of nutrient pollution which is primarily from Ag sources - NOT ALGAE. The dams make poor water quality worse - including stimulating toxic algae production. Discharges to the Klamath River from the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project are sometimes so polluted with nutrients that they become pure ammonia - a substance directly toxic to most if not all life forms.

The TMDLs and clean-up plans identify the sources for each component of Klamath pollution. WE KNOW WHO NEEDS TO CHANGE AND WHICH POLLUTANT THEY NEED TO CLEAN UP FOR THE TOTAL CLEAN-UP TO BE EFFECTIVE. Economic considerations have no place here. When one is stopped for speeding the officer does not consider the offenders economic status; polluters should be treated the same way.

Past experience indicates that clean-up will not occur unless citizen activists monitor implementation and pressure the responsible agency bureaucrats to do their duty.
Anonymous says:
Jan 14, 2011 02:25 PM
Felice wrote "...dissolved oxygen problem is the result of nutrient pollution which is primarily from Ag sources - NOT ALGAE." (his emphasis, not mine.

Technically, this is wrong -- nutrients have almost no direct impact on DO at all, what they do impact is productivity (primarily algae) which builds Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) which reduces dissolved oxygen (DO). This is most often a problem in slow moving waters with little turnover (like reservoirs and lakes) but can be an issue in rivers if the flow is slow and the BOD is high. Riffles on the river tend to increase DO but this is controlled by the water temperature (physics). Most of the lower Klamath's DO issues are temperature related because of these factors.

Felice wrote "Discharges to the Klamath River from the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project are sometimes so polluted with nutrients that they become pure ammonia - a substance directly toxic to most if not all life forms."

Now this is simply shrill hyperbole and not productive when discussing solutions. While there may be high ammonium levels in the water (I don't have any current data on it), it's highly unlikely that the level are anywhere within 1/10,000 of the concentration of pure ammonia -- which would indeed kill everything within probably 10 miles of the source on land and air.

Ammonia in water is usually a problem downstream from areas with high animal populations (like CAFOs) or in areas of slow moving water where anaerobic bacteria convert nitrates (which are a problem in Ag runoff) to ammonium. The water out of Tule Lake NWR could well be elevated in ammonium because of both those factors (slow moving water and high numbers of waterfowl). Typically very little ammonium runs off from fertilized land because it is a cation and attracted to soil particles. Nitrate on the other hand, does tend to leach out and it can be a problem to aquatic life as well as lead to eutrophication problems.

By the way, it's usually called non-point source emissions for a reason so I'd be curious how you know exactly who (which farmer) is responsible for each piece of pollution.

Finally, ignoring the social and economic impacts of cleaning up the Klamath simply means you are tilting at windmills. It's a reality of our existence that the best way to get to the standards is to show the main contributors to the problems that it's in their best interest to reduce the pollution. That can come through either penalties and regulations or incentives and education but it's probably not going to happen simply because you yell about it.

Most farmers (I'm assuming that's who you're blaming for the N in the water) don't want to see nitrates run off from their land because it means they're wasting money as well as contributing to decreased water quality. And most farmers care as much or more about the environment than the average citizen because their livelihood depends on it. It would seem the more productive path would be to sit down with them and talk, calmly and rationally, about how to best achieve all our goals.
Anonymous says:
Jan 14, 2011 04:06 PM
OK Doc, You've got me this time. "Pure ammonia" may be a bit of hyperbole..but only a bit. Here are relevant excerpts from Klamath River Water Quality Data from Link River Dam to Keno Dam, Oregon, 2008, USGS, http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1105/pdf/ofr20091105.pdf:

"The State of Oregon classifies sites in this reach as having “very poor” water quality, according to the Oregon Water Quality Index (Mrazik, 2007). In addition, this stretch of the Klamath River has been designated as “water quality limited” on Oregon’s 303(d) list for ammonia and dissolved oxygen year-round, and pH and chlorophyll a in summer (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, 2007).

"Ammonia concentrations just downstream from Upper Klamath Lake, at Link River, were below 0.070 mg/L and fairly constant until early October, when concentrations increased to as much as 1.12 mg/L at the last sampling in mid-November. The seasonal pattern at that site was different from that at mainstem sites further downstream, which experienced increases in ammonia concentrations by mid-July, with maximums in summer. At some of the farther downstream sites, on some dates in summer, ammonia also varied substantially (over 100 percent difference calculated as RPD) between the top and bottom of the water column; when such differences occurred, higher concentrations usually were in bottom samples. Averaged over the entire sampling season, ammonia concentrations at mainstem sites increased in the downstream direction: 0.108 mg/L at Link River, 0.260 mg/L at Railroad Bridge, 0.495 mg/L at Miller Island, 0.560 mg/L at KRS12a, and 0.580 mg/L at Keno; median values (fig. 3) show a similar trend."

"In the Klamath Straits Drain and Lost River Diversion Channel, tributaries to the mainstem Klamath River, concentrations of total nitrogen ranged from 0.99 mg/L to 4.52 mg/L and particulate nitrogen from 0.10 mg/L to 1.44 mg/L; seasonal cycles were not strongly apparent, though the highest concentrations in the Klamath Straits Drain were measured early in the season, in April. Ammonia concentrations ranged from below detection to 1.06 mg/L, with the higher concentrations in summer and fall. Nitrite plus nitrate concentrations ranged from below detection to 0.668 mg/L. Nitrite concentrations ranged from below detection to 0.112 mg/L. Total phosphorus concentrations ranged from 0.17 to 0.62 mg/L, and orthophosphate from 0.051 to 0.390 mg/L."

But as for your statement that:
     "Most farmers (I'm assuming that's who you're blaming for the N in the water) don't want to see nitrates run off from their land because it means they're wasting money as well as contributing to decreased water quality."

I must demur. In the 1960's the irrigation districts in this area put in deep tile drains which speed water - and nutrients - through the soil resulting in higher yields but also much more concentrated pollution in the discharge.

I'd be happy to dialogue more with you on this, Doc, but how about sending HCN an e-mail with contact info and I'll call you. The TMDL process does ID specific non-point sources and assigns them load reduction targets. Sometimes this gets down to the level of individual ownerships.

Bottom line: Ag, forestry and urban run-off are the top sources of water pollution nation wide. I'm not "blaming" anyone; the sources were in my first post.