Nature violates Clean Water Act


Jan. 27, 2010


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently issued a stop order to the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority in Southern California delaying construction of a water treatment facility to clean up contamination from the local groundwater basin because the clean water produced will be unsafe for wildlife although safe for humans to drink.

The problem is selenium, a naturally occurring element in the soil that humans ingest in trace amounts in vitamin supplements, Brazil nuts and other foods but is harmful to small organisms and fish. The selenium in the San Gabriel Water Basin is naturally occurring and is not added to the water as part of the treatment process, is not a by-product of that process, nor does it come from a chemical spill, agricultural irrigation water runoff, or industrial contamination. As Dan Colby, chemist for the water quality authority explained “Mother Nature is in violation of the Clean Water Act!”

The Eco-Spectacle of Kesterson Reservoir

Selenium in water raises images of the infamous Kesterson Reservoir in the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the early 1980s where there was a rapid die-off of migratory waterfowl, fish, insects, plants and algae within the Kesterson agricultural irrigation reservoir.

The San Gabriel Valley Water Basin, like Kesterson, has naturally occurring levels of selenium. The apparent problem at Kesterson was that the farmers coincidentally concentrated selenium in an irrigation water pond thus affecting plants and animals. Oversimplified, pollution is concentration at unsafe levels, thus the famous saying “the poison is in the dosage” (Paracelsus).

The EPA safety standard for selenium in humans is 50 parts per billion and 5 parts per billion for wildlife.

Lack of selenium is associated with retardation

Selenium (Greek for “moon”) is a non-metal chemically related to sulphur. In trace amounts it is necessary for cellular function in nearly all animals. The selenium requirement in plants varies. Selenium deficiency is associated with mental retardation in humans. Thus, removing selenium from drinking water might be harmful to children. But selenium is apparently what the EPA wants removed from the treated drinking water.

Selenium is not perchlorate

Selenium should not be confused with perchlorate, also found in groundwater, and also a possible cause of educational deficits in children due to interference with iodine absorption. Perchlorate is not cancerous, not a poison, not a neurotoxin and does not cause autism. It is a potential endocrine gland disruptor.

Perchlorate (oxygenated chlorine), a natural salt also used as a jet fuel and fireworks boosting agent, is thought to be unsafe at levels of 240 parts per billion in drinking water (reduced by a factor of 10 to 24 ppb’s in California). Perchlorate has been detected in the San Gabriel Water Basin in levels from “ND” (not detected) to 183 parts per billion.

Water wells with small concentrations of perchlorate (7 to 23 ppbs) have been shut down all over Southern California. Costly replacement water has had to be imported from the Colorado River which has 6 ppb’s of perchlorate.

Ironically, Southern Californians are drinking perchlorate-laced imported water with roughly the same magnitude of perchlorate in it as the so-called contaminated water wells. The apparent public perception is that perchlorate-laced river water is safe to drink but groundwater contaminated with industrial perchlorate at about the same magnitude of concentration is unsafe.  And now the EPA may want selenium that may prevent mental retardation removed from drinking water, although it theoretically may harm wildlife. The absurd world of environmental water cleanups is far from being rocket science.

Selenium is not a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

The present cost to remove Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) that form most of the groundwater contamination in the San Gabriel Water Basin by an air stripping method is $25 per acre-foot of water. If selenium had to be additionally removed it would require using a costly reverse osmosis process (filtering through a membrane). Reverse osmosis typically costs around $800 to $1,000 per acre foot of water while imported treated water costs from $250 to $500 per acre foot depending on drought conditions.

Volatile Organic Compounds are carbon compounds that evaporate or vaporize readily. Typical VOC’s are industrial solvents, coatings, and refrigerants. Oddly, methane, a greenhouse gas, also is a VOC and occurs in wetlands but is not yet regulated by the EPA. The EPA’s stop order applies only to the Puente Operable Unit of the San Gabriel Basin that is contaminated only with VOC’s.

A Bureaucratic rabbit hole

In Lewis Carroll’s children’s book Alice in Wonderland, Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole and finds a bizarre world where nothing is what it seemed. Anyone who ventures into the world of the regulation of underground water will find a similar parallel universe where night is day, black is white, up is down, what is natural is bad, and what is commonsensical has been replaced with a political calculus.

Grace Kast, executive director of the water authority, stated that the snafu with proceeding with construction of the water treatment plant in the Puente Operable Unit unknowingly began when the EPA approved the cleanup plan for the San Gabriel Water Basin in 1998.  Since the San Gabriel Water Basin is partly a Superfund site, the Superfund section of EPA approved the plan without talking with the Clean Water Act section. The proverbial bureaucratic left hand did not cooperate with the right hand.

Now after 10 years, and the Northrop Grumman Co. responsibly funding $21 million for clean-up facilities, the EPA wants an even higher standard of clean-up. It apparently even wants trace amounts of natural substances that hypothetically might harm plants and animal life removed from the groundwater.

‘The solution to pollution is dilution’

Water Authority chemist Dan Colby says that selenium is naturally found in the water wells of the basin from 7 to 10 parts per billion.

Selenium poses little potential harm to wildlife in the concrete lined San Gabriel River channel.

The clean water would flow downstream through the channel to an ocean outlet in Alamitos Bay between Long Beach and Seal Beach where sea life could be affected. But it would also likely be diluted with ocean water. Sure, selenium deposits could form in Alamitos Bay but presumably they already have been naturally doing so for thousands of years.

Water, water everywhere, but none to drink

The San Gabriel Water Basin is the largest managed basin in the world. It has a usable water storage capacity of about 800,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is a football size field of water one foot deep; or enough to supply two urban families for a year).

To provide an idea of the magnitude of the storage capacity of the San Gabriel Basin, every water reservoir in the southern half of the state of California (except the new Diamond Valley Lake) could fit inside its subsurface capacity. Unlike wholesale water reservoirs that are typically geographically remote and require costly pipelines to transport water to urban users, the San Gabriel Basin is sitting in the middle of metropolitan Los Angeles. That means only pumping, treatment and distribution costs apply, not transportation and reservoir storage costs. Cheap available water in California is proverbial blue gold.

The Safe Yield of water that can be pumped from the basin without it depleting is 152,700 acre-feet per year or about enough for 750,000 persons. The Puente Operable Unit portion of the San Gabriel Basin adds about 4,400 acre-feet of Safe Yield water per year that could serve 22,000 more persons.

California has been suffering from a drought for the past three years. Southern Californians have had fines and increased water rates imposed on them due to the drought. As of the writing of this report a set of monsoon rain storms are pending hitting California that are expected to bring an end to the drought.

However, even if the natural drought ends the Environmental Defense Fund has by lawsuit stopped deliveries of Sacramento Delta water to Southern California purportedly to protect the Delta Smelt that has almost disappeared. So the end of a meteorological drought may offer no end to the adjudicated drought.

What higher priority can there be in Southern California even by environmentalists than tapping the huge underground water resources of the San Gabriel Basin in their own backyard and thereby lessening the demand on the Delta?

The medium is the contamination

Marshall McLuhan became famous for his phrase “the medium is the message.” The problem with environmental reporting is that the media can contaminate the message. Even though the reporting is often accurate the narrative is often fake, hence the new phrase “fake but accurate.”

Photos of environmental disasters such as Kesterson with dead wildlife boost newspaper sales and TV time. Typically those responsible are demonized and there is no opportunity to educate the public as to the context of what they are seeing. The toxic element at Kesterson was “pandemonium,” a molecule composed of one part politics, one part environmental activism, and two parts of opportunism, all catalyzed by a tabloid media.

The problem at the San Gabriel Water Basin may not so much be harm to wildlife from naturally occurring trace amounts of selenium or even bureaucratic delay in the construction of the water treatment plant but anticipated media reaction by environmental activists. Hence the bureaucratic delay and necessary consultations to protect the incumbency of politicians before any appearance of environmental degradation is created or can be exploited.

So who really is responsible for the bureaucratic delay in construction of a water treatment plant in the Puente Operable Unit of the San Gabriel Water Basin? Is it the bureaucrats and the politicians? The local newspapers think so and predictably have issued editorials to put pressure on the respective regulatory agencies and politicians. But it’s the shadow influence of environmentalists and other gatekeepers who are keeping the cleanup of the water basin from happening.

Note: The author’s publication “Perchlorate Paranoia Percolating In Pasadena,” was selected by The Gale Group, International Publishers, Britain, for inclusion in the high school science textbook “At Issue: Water” for use in public schools all across the United Kingdom.


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  1. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 29 January, 2010, 18:42

    I disagree with Wayne in two regards.
    First, it is better to delay a little and get it right the first time than institute a plan that turns out to be wrong and costs more money in the end. The last thing SGV Water, Long Beach, California, or the EPA wants or needs are unintended consequences due to the accumulation and bioaccumulation of selenium. That was the issue with Kesterson and remains an issue in the San Joaquin Valley.
    Second, the fact that selenium was not taken account of is an issue that is spread around all the various agencies on the local, state, and federal levels. Selenium is a known potential issue in California and should have been included in the earlier studies. It is not that mother nature violates the Clean Water Act, it is the actions of people who modify mother nature to our needs and whims and cause an element or compound from one place where it is harmless to move to another location where it can do a ton of damage. The laws and regulations are in place to limit such issues to occur in a vacuum. Hence the delay that will occur to make sure the agencies and downstream municipalities all understand the risks involved. 🙂

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  2. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 29 January, 2010, 18:55


    I thank DFB for his comments.
    There is no reasonable nexus between Northrop Grumman’s industrial contamination and the natural or unintentional accumulation of natural selenium from WQA’s cleanup project. So Northrup should NOT have to fund superordinary cleanup of selenium. All the consequences of the cleanup activities are probably not foreseeable in any event. If one bird is now found dead (from natural causes) in the San Gabriel River Channel and the media photographs this “normal” death, it may be blown up into a “selenium poisoned” bird death. Any extraordinary cleanup measures ordered by EPA should be funded by EPA. Moreover, not only man, but nature, concentrates natural substances so they are potentially harmful to wildlife. For example, a low level of perchlorate may have been deposited in Southern California when there were inland seas covering the land. EPA comes along a thousand years later and blames industry.

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