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Slowing a tide of pollutants

Environmental IssuesEnergy SavingEnvironmental PollutionFertilizerScienceU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyRegional Authority

Call it the slobber stopper.

It looks like an elaborate fountain. Water gurgles through a series of red-tiled pools, spillways and chutes within sight of the pedestrian walkway that connects the bluffs of Santa Monica with the Santa Monica Pier.

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, or SMURRF, is the only thing preventing 350,000 gallons of urban runoff from coursing into the Pacific every day.

The $12-million contraption is at the forefront of efforts to curb the torrent of pollutants that threaten the world's oceans. Sitting near the mouth of the city's largest storm drain, it collects and treats the frothy flow that trickles out of a seaside metropolis day after day from sprinklers, washed cars and drained pools, bearing with it cat and dog waste, spilled engine oil, lawn chemicals, brake dust, bacteria and viruses.

The liquid waste, called "urban slobber," is filtered; sterilized with ultraviolet light; and recycled to irrigate Palisades Park and a city cemetery and to flush the toilets at police headquarters. Styrofoam cups, plastic bags and other solid debris are scooped out and hauled to a landfill.

Yet such farsighted ingenuity remains the exception rather than the rule. SMURRF is the only urban-runoff recycling plant in the country. Efficient as it is, it captures a tiny fraction of the runoff flowing into California's coastal waters.

Urban runoff is the fastest-growing source of ocean pollution. The storm water discharge, combined with partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, and pollution from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, is changing the chemistry of the seas.

Industrial civilization is overloading the oceans with nutrients — compounds of nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous. Algae, jellyfish and other primitive life-forms are thriving in this new environment, while corals, marine mammals and many fish species are struggling.

Scientists say society has only recently begun to grasp how what happens on land affects the sea. It has taken decades to get to this point, they say, and it could take just as long to reverse the trend.

"We have millions of people who live near the water and whose waste contributes to degrading the quality of coastal waters," said Dave Caron, a USC biological oceanographer. "It's only common sense that we should take care and treat this like it were our backyard."

Government and industry officials, with the benefit of scientific studies, can now pinpoint the multitude of pollution sources. They also know how to fix the problems, said Paul Faeth, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. "We've got the tools," he said, "but need the political will to get it done."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, often has failed to enforce the Clean Water Act's requirement to stop pollutants from entering U.S. coastal waters deemed impaired, except when forced to do so by federal courts.

Drainage into the Santa Monica Bay and other Southern California waters is regulated under a judge's orders to reduce the trash, bacteria and other contaminants.

Still, dozens of cities have spent years and more than $1 million battling compliance requirements in court. In the meantime, many of the simplest and least expensive cleanup methods have been ignored — including the use of street sweepers to follow trash trucks and scoop up spills.

With its civic image and tourist industry tied to picture-perfect beaches, Santa Monica didn't need a court order to tidy up its coastline.

SMURRF, which began operating five years ago, has already shown results. The big storm drain empties onto the sand next to the luxurious hotels Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. The popular beach used to get failing grades from ocean monitoring groups because contaminated waters threatened public health.

Now, with SMURRF intercepting and treating the runoff, the beach gets mostly A's.

"This is incredibly important to Santa Monica," said Craig Perkins, the city's director of environmental and public works management. "We get 3 [million] to 5 million visitors a year. It's logical to assume that they would prefer the beaches and ocean are safe and clean."

Santa Monica diverts most of the flow that SMURRF can't handle to a sewage treatment plant. Still, there are limits to what the infrastructure can do. In heavy rainstorms, the runoff from storm drains can overwhelm treatment plants and risk spilling raw sewage. City engineers have to release these polluted floodwaters into the sea.

That has prompted Santa Monica and other cities, including Seattle and Portland, Ore., to focus on stopping runoff at its sources: the rooftops, roads, sidewalks and parking lots that shed water.

On a recent tour of Santa Monica, Perkins showed off a newly built Spanish-style house on 7th Street. The five-bedroom home was nearly finished, except for a giant pit in the frontyard. It looked like a small swimming pool — filled with rocks. Rain gutters and thick plastic pipes will direct rainwater into the pit so it can percolate into the ground.

"It's a common, simple way to keep more water in the yard and less spilling into the street," Perkins said.

For more than a decade, the city has required new construction or substantial home remodels to maximize permeable areas or set up other ways to keep water from running loose.

It's an attempt to reverse 125 years of engineering and landscaping design. Now, parking lots and driveways are being built from pavers or porous concrete that allow water to pass into the soil. They are lined with planters, built below grade to collect runoff, with trees and shrubs that soak up rainwater.

So far, about 1,200 parcels, about 5% of the city's total, have been reconfigured so that during 0.75 of an inch of rain, 6.1 million gallons of rainwater feeds topsoil or recharges groundwater instead of being whisked to the ocean with the other 110 million gallons.

But even in Santa Monica, 95% of the city has yet to be updated. "We're making progress," Perkins said. "Over the next 50 to 60 years, we could be close to retrofitting 90% of the city. We have to look at the cumulative benefits over time."

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FIFTY miles from the shores of Santa Monica, in the Chino Valley of San Bernardino County, Mark Lambooy is focused on a cleanup of another kind.

Every day, a two-man crew maneuvers a giant vacuum tanker to sweep the feeding lane at Lambooy's Dykstra Dairy, nudging aside black and white Holsteins jostling for another mouthful of hay.

With a giant squeegee and powerful suction, the tractor-powered "honey vac" scoops up a green-brown slurry of manure, turning a waste product into a commodity that will be used to generate electricity and then spread on fields as fertilizer.

Dykstra Dairy is in the vanguard of a movement to clean up waste from livestock compounds. The goal is to keep the nitrogen-rich waste out of creeks, rivers and ultimately oceans.

It's an unusual chore on a dairy farm otherwise preoccupied with maximizing milk production, said Lambooy, the co-owner. Nowadays, he said, "there is a lot more attention on the rear end of the cow."

A great deal more attention is being paid to all types of agricultural runoff. That includes the stuff that washes out of feedlots in rainstorms and off farms.

One of the toughest tasks has been to discourage the excessive use of cheap chemical fertilizer, which is manufactured by stripping nitrogen out of the air and altering its chemistry.

Although such fertilizer has brought America an unprecedented bounty of corn and other crops, it has also caused serious damage to the oceans by creating "dead zones."

In one of the largest lifeless zones, off the coast of Louisiana, fertilizer residue flowing down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico stimulates riotous blooms of algae, which then die. During their decay, they consume the available oxygen in the water, making it impossible for most sea life to survive.

These anoxic zones are proliferating around the globe, tracking expanded use of chemical fertilizers.

Nancy Rabalais, a Louisiana scientist who studies the devastation off the mouth of the Mississippi, tries to persuade Midwest grain farmers to fertilize in the spring rather than the fall. That way less fertilizer would be swept away by winter rains and snowmelt.

"Most farmers won't do it," she said. "They stick with what they know."

Midwestern farmers worry that springtime conditions may be too wet to allow them to apply fertilizer and work the land.

Farmers know that too little fertilizer — just like too little water — can limit the growth of their crops. To reduce their risk of decreased corn yields, they apply more fertilizer than crops need. That increases the amount of nitrogen that comes off their land.

None of this is a surprise to the EPA, which spent four years developing a plan to shrink the "dead zone." The plan was finished in 2001. But little progress has been made putting it into action.

The EPA has the power under the Clean Water Act to mandate reductions in agricultural and urban waste entering the Mississippi — something it has been reluctant to do.

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ONE way to ease the effect of agricultural waste on the oceans would be to restore some of the millions of acres of marshes and streamside forests that absorbed and recycled nitrogen before the land was cleared for farms.

Scientists in Ohio and Louisiana estimated that if just 2% of strategically located farmland in the Mississippi drainage basin were returned to wetlands, it would significantly reduce the nitrogen that races into the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages such restoration, and the idea has proved popular with farmers. Yet thousands of those willing to set aside wetlands or plant buffers of grass and trees are turned away each year because of a shortage of funds.

So for the time being, progress will depend on the efforts of individual farmers like Lambooy to keep waste from spilling off their property.

The EPA has calculated that the manure generated by all animal feeding operations is about 100 times more than all the sewage sludge processed by the nation's municipal wastewater treatment plants.

In California, the nation's leading dairy state, 1.7 million cows on 2,100 dairies produce 65 billion pounds of manure a year.

Ammonia, a form of nitrogen, escapes from manure into the air and travels up to 30 miles before falling back to Earth and enriching surface waters. Manure also releases methane, a greenhouse gas.

Some dairy farms use manure to fertilize crops, but many others, including ones in the Chino Basin, lack enough acreage to spread the manure around. For years, they would pile it up on their property; large storms washed it into the Santa Ana River and coastal waters off Newport Beach. A large mound of manure sits by the side of Euclid Avenue in Ontario, adorned with the sign "Free Bulk Fertilizer."

A lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council spurred state regulators to began enforcing rules to corral manure and related wastewater on site.

Dykstra Dairy decided to join other dairies in an effort to wrest energy from excrement. That's where the "honey vac" comes in, scooping up 36 tons a day that goes to a "methane digester" at a regional utility.

The Inland Empire Utilities Agency heats the slurry in enormous tanks, causing bacteria to break down the manure and release methane, which the agency uses to generate electricity. Residual dry manure is composted and sold as a fertilizer. Leftover liquids are flushed for treatment at a sewage plant.

More than 100 of these methane digesters now operate nationwide. The key is to collect manure early, so the gases can be harnessed before they escape into the environment, said Martha Davis, an executive at the Inland Empire agency. "The fresher the better."

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ken.weiss@latimes.com

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