Coastal Post Online


July 2002

Russian River Water Quality Still Questionable

MMWD Study Marred By Poor Science

By Louis Nuyens

In June, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) staff presented the results of a quietly instituted, 12-18 month water-quality testing program on the Russian River.

The program seemed to be targeting criticism, and attempting to defuse concerns raised by Marin and Sonoma County environmental leaders and public health advocates who, two years ago, brought up the issue of contaminants and pollutants being discharged into the Russian River (RR), a major drinking water source for the two counties. Many of the concerns to date have centered around mistrust of information provided by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) - a body thought by many to be too closely aligned with pro-development interests -- which has frequently under-informed and misinformed its major municipal clients while negotiating agreements with them.

Considering its value as wildlife habitat, recreational resource, and agriculture and drinking water supply, comprehensive, scientifically valid water quality studies of the Russian River are long overdue.

On its surface, the MMWD program is a good one, testing for pesticides, herbicides, 319 organic chemicals, pharmaceutical pollutants, and endocrine disruptors.

However, sewage wastewater was not addressed, and, unfortunately, problems with methodology, quality control, questionable use of new technology, and inappropriate partnerships that undermined the foundation of the entire program.

The program was implemented in such a slip-shod manner that the results cannot be considered a scientifically validated study, but merely an exercise in placation.

The Program

The MMWD study included monthly testing of samples for 319 synthetic organic compounds, which were processed by a certified, commercial laboratory. The program ran for 18 months, from the SCWA treated drinking water at Marin's Ignacio Pump Station, and for 12 months for raw (untreated) water in the Russian River. The untreated water samples were gathered below the Laguna de Santa Rosa (the wastewater discharge point for the city of Santa Rosa) and below SCWA drinking water collectors in the Russian River. These samples were gathered by Sonoma County Water Agency staff.

Additional limited samples were taken at the above sites, plus upstream of Laguna de Santa Rosa, for similar time periods; they were tested using experimental techniques for pharmaceuticals by the University of California at Berkeley, and for endocrine disruptors by Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene using E-Screen Assays which use breast cancer cell growth to determine estrogenic activity.

Methodology Misfires

Coastal Post inquiry uncovered that MMWD did not put together a program plan, sampling protocols, quality assurance plan or a quality control plan for the Russian River water quality study - all crucial factors in validating scientific methodology, and a standard practice in any industry.

Nor was there any of the above documentation provided to MMWD from their partners, UC Berkeley or Wisconsin State, which is not necessarily out of the ordinary for academic research facilities, but most certainly problematic for public use of the data.

MMWD negotiated with SCWA staff to take all of the samples for the Russian River part of the program - recognizing that SCWA has a vested interest in proving that their highly lucrative water source is pollutant free. In fact, the SCWA just hired political consultant with $45,000 in public money to polish its image, while one of its closely-aligned contractors is paying over $300k for lobbying to weaken requirements on toxic dumping. While collaborations are often beneficial, partnering with SCWA, given its past negative history, which has engendered serious distrust in the community, damages the credibility of MMWD's Study.

An example of proper methodology and paper documentation for a very similar study, see the website for the USGS's Pharmaceutical Testing Program (

Cutting Edge Technology Can Be An Unwieldy Sword

Bob Castle, MMWD's Water Quality Manager, mentioned at the presentation that their partnership with the Civil and Environmental Engineering division of UC Berkeley, who were attempting to test for pharmaceuticals, was not the most successful, or happy of affairs.

Throughout the study, UCB was reportedly unable to perform the highly experimental test procedures to achieve the low level detection necessary to produce usable data on pharmaceuticals. Undergraduate students performed the analytical work. According to Mr. Castle, they abandoned the testing for certain types of compounds altogether. UCB has since pulled out of any further testing partnership with MMWD and has indicated that they are not interested in testing surface waters - only direct sewage wastewater discharges (which have higher levels of constituents of concerns).

In the United States, it appears that the Environmental Protection Agency, and USGS are the only ones who seem to have the capability, at this point in time, to consistently perform the high level of technique required of this type of testing.

The E-Screen Assays performed by Wisconsin State also experienced consistency problems; results contradictory to UCB tests occurred on a given sample. E-Screen Assays are used as a general tool to detect estrogenic activity, it does not separate or identify compounds, just that they are, or are not, present. There is ongoing assessment of the accuracy of the test by researchers.

Results and Conclusions

The most viable part of the MMWD study is the organic chemical panel (319 compounds), and was performed by a commercial lab - which would have done appropriate QA/QC using standardized, EPA approved tests, but the sampling procedures are still under suspicion due to lack of documentation of protocols and SCWA involvement.

The majority of the results came back "non-detect." However, the organic chemical report list provided by MMWD to the public, fails to distinguish the Ignacio sample results from the Russian River results, and appears to lump them together.

Pharmaceutical testing involves highly difficult techniques, attempting detection in the parts per trillion; many lessons must be learned before reliable data can be achieved reliably by smaller lab facilities. It is worth keeping an eye on for the future, and, in the meantime, lobbying the EPA or USGS to undertake a pharmaceutical and endocrine disruptor study on the Russian River.

Unfortunately, virtually no comparative data from other agencies such as USGS, California Department of Fish and Game, National Marine fisheries, is available on RR water quality to compare or debunk MMWD study.

MMWD had the right shopping list; it should keep the list and try to fill it properly.



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