[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."
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.
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."
About this story
This is one in a series of Los Angeles Times articles on threats to the world’s oceans. To read the series "Altered Oceans" and see a multimedia presentation, including photo galleries and video reports, go to latimes.com/oceans.
What you can do to help
Even slight changes in habits and lifestyle can help improve the health of the oceans.
Do not litter
About 80% of ocean trash comes from land, mostly fast-food wrappers and plastic bags, bottles and cups. Recycle and pick up after yourself. Bring your own bag to the supermarket.
Clean up after pets
Bag dog and cat feces and dispose of them in the trash. Don’t flush cat litter down the toilet. Sewage treatment doesn’t remove parasites that can harm sea otters and dolphins.
Don’t flush medicines or solvents
Throw away unused pharmaceuticals, perfumes, industrial chemicals or solvents. Don’t dispose of them in the toilet or down the sink. Sewage treatment doesn’t remove many chemicals and dissolved drugs that can poison sea life.
Minimize fertilizer use
Don’t apply before rainstorms. Don’t use a hose to remove spills or residue from sidewalks and driveways. Sweep it up and put it in the trash.
Discard chemicals properly
Dispose of household toxins at hazardous-waste collection centers. Recycle used motor oil and transmission fluid. When possible, use nontoxic substitutes. Find the Environmental Protection Agency’s suggestions athttp://es.epa.gov/techinfo/facts/safe-fs.htmlCollect car-wash runoff
Don’t wash cars in streets or driveways. Instead, park on lawns or go to a carwash that collects the runoff.
Buy local, buy organic
Farmers markets support local growers who drive less and are often easier on the land. Buy organic food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Use drip irrigation whenever possible and adjust sprinklers to minimize over-spraying. Plant hardy native plants that need less water.
Plant a tree
Trees slow runoff and absorb carbon dioxide and other nutrients that otherwise end up in the ocean.
Use alternative transportation
Consider walking, riding a bike or taking mass transit to shop or to work. Tailpipes pollute the ocean as well as the air.
— Kenneth R. Weiss
Sources: Los Angeles Stormwater Program; EPA; Heal the Bay; Natural Resources Defense Council; "50 Ways to Save the Ocean," by David Helvarg
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