The Coastal Post - September 2000

Russian River Water Quality? We Had Better Find Out

By Elena Belsky

The first step in solving a problem is the admission that something is wrong. The Russian River is polluted. Sonoma and large parts of Marin County depend on this water for survival. Until the various municipal water districts, cities, and local government agencies acknowledge that serious water quality problems exist, no knowledge, no testing, no possibility of change can occur. {Moved to end)

In a previous article, we examined the many contaminants that are being dumped into the Russian River and its watershed: Pesticides and herbicides from agriculture, industrial waste, urban run-off, treated, partially treated and raw sewage.

New in the Brew

Two emerging water quality problems, just this year being recognized by the United States (it has been studied for 10 years in Europe), are (1) that residual prescription drugs and personal care products are polluting rivers and groundwater through treated wastewater releases and are slipping past the wastewater and drinking water treatment processes and reaching our taps; and (2) there are undesired chemicals produced as breakdown by-products from waste and drinking water treatment processes. None of these potentially harmful pollutants are currently regulated by primary or secondary drinking water standards. That means no mandatory testing exists.

Says Bob Boyd of the USGS "Long-term exposures to low concentrations might have health effects," and noted that current water treatment does not remove drugs from the tap water.

What's Happening in the Water

Endocrine disruption describes what happens when chemicals in the water interfere with the body's natural hormone system-there can be profound physiological effects. Endocrine disrupters could include any or all of the above mentioned chemicals.

Effects of endocrine disrupters are well documented world wide, through studies of fish, frogs and alligators. All over the globe, male fish are turning up with high levels of a protein (Vitellogenin) found in female egg sacs. This can affect sperm production, spawning behavior, and in some cases turns males into females. Male fish should not show any signs of this female protein. While the exact source has not yet been identified, human wastewater containing estrogen from prescription drugs is a likely culprit. Exemplifying concerns about breakdown products, British scientists have discovered that estrogen from birth control pills is actually intensified after sewage treatment. Aquatic species often serve as an early warning indicator for human health concerns.

Christian Daughton, a leading researcher for the EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas, comments that "Étap water data will be "disturbing" if they're confirmed. If [drugs] are in drinking water now," he warns, "you can be guaranteed they've been there as long as the drugs have been in use."

The Breakdown Letdown

Organochlorines include Agent Orange, DDT, PCB's as well as other classes of compounds produced when chlorine gas interacts with organic matter and breaks down in the industrial processes. This can include wastewater treatment and tap water treatment processes. Studies have found that these chemicals are dangerously persistent and stable in the environment, and that they tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. Analyses of human fat, mother's milk, blood, breath, sperm, and urine, were shown to carry a toxic soup of organochlorines, which means we are carrying an accumulated "toxic load" in our bodies. It is not clear what the damage from constant doses of low concentrations of these chemicals actually pose to long-term health for humans and reproduction.

Las Vegas Basin Test Case

The Basin was chosen by the US EPA as a test site for prescription drugs and personal care chemicals in groundwater, drinking water sources, and tap water, because of its lack of agricultural (pesticide and herbicide) runoff. Las Vegas Wash is a 15 mile-long stretch of channel carved by floodwaters. Some 150 million gallons a day of treated sewage and Las Vegas urban run off flows into Lake Mead, the major drinking water source. Eight million gallons of raw sewage was discharged into Lake Mead in 1998; it was the sixth illegal discharge in 6 months. One million residents and 30 million visitors recreate in Lake Mead. Hazardous chemical production from industry, and perchlorate from rocket fuel production contaminates many watersheds throughout Nevada.

Christian Daughton of the EPA will be heading the team for the water quality study, which will look for 20 target chemicals over the next two years. The USGS has been conducting water quality testing in the area for the past few years, mostly focusing on estrogen and fish related concerns, perchlorates, industrial run-off, and coliform bacteria.

Possible Future Protection: UV Radiation treatment systems

While chlorine is the most prevalent form of disinfection for wastewater and tap water, it does not eliminate dangerous parasites (Crytposporidium, Giardia, and other micro-organisms) or certain bacteria (special filters must be added). Primary use of chemical treatment also adds to the problem by creating disinfection byproducts such as organochlorines.

Ozone is widely used in Europe; however, it can result in bromide variations of breakdown by-products and can be prohibitively expensive. Ozone works best on very clean water sources.

The EPA is currently considering more stringent drinking water standards proposed for next spring, in response to which, existing treatment facilities may have to alter their methods of disinfection. UV radiation is seen as environmentally safe, "inactivates" the deadly Cryptosporidium parasite, kills everything depending on the dosage used, and reportedly does not contribute breakdown by-products to the water. This step could easily be added to existing water treatments. At some point we, as municipal water users, might have to consider (and be willing to pay for) alternative and more effective disinfection systems in response to discovery of emerging chemical byproducts and contamination of primary drinking water sources. Ultraviolet radiation is being promoted as the next step in water quality and safety.

Meanwhile, back in Sonoma/MarinÉ

The majority of North Marin Water District's water is from the Russian River (for over 20 years) including all of Novato, and portions of North-West Marin. Twenty-five percent of Marin Municipal water is from the Russian River, serving parts of Southern Marin. The current pipeline construction proposal would enable the importation of Russian River water to double in the near future. Since we depend so heavily on the Russian River as a water source, shouldn't we be increasingly concerned for our water quality?

Unlike the Las Vegas project, we have the added complication of toxics in agricultural run-off to deal with in the Russian River watershed. Our environmental and personal health could be at stake, with even greater unknown ramifications for the children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Shouldn't we be voluntarily implementing a more strenuous water quality testing program, since the current government standards leave much to question, by their own admission?

Let's find out what's really in our drinking water, and use the relatively "untouched" Mt. Tamalpais water as a basis for comparison. The USGS and the EPA are highly interested in these emerging water quality issues at the moment and involving them in the Russian River water quality debate would be beneficial. Testing criteria are already under development for the Las Vegas project, we in Marin and Sonoma should find out if these parameters would work as a test for our drinking water and its source. In the meantime, limiting reliance on questionable water sources, such as the Russian River, seems an eminently reasonable measure.

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