River quality examined | SierraSun.com

River quality examined

The good news is the Truckee River is in great shape.

The bad news, expert say, is that it may not last long.

Organizers of the Truckee River Sediment Control Plan believe that the entire community benefits from the quality of the river’s water and that all need to be proactive about the water’s quality.

“[People] are here versus the Los Angeles basin because the quality of life is such that they want to be here,” said Lisa Wallace of the Truckee River Watershed Council (TRWC).

The Truckee River, she said, is an important part of that quality of life.

The Environmental Protection Agency listed the Truckee River as impaired for sediment – a pollutant identified by the Clean Water Act in 1972 – but the river remains, comparatively, very clean.

This classification requires that the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board (LRWQCB), the state agency in charge of Truckee River water quality, must devise a sediment control plan.

The LRWQCB plans to wrap up the process of determining the plan by 2006.

Representatives of public and private interests got a quick lesson in sedimentation in the river at the first sediment control workshop sponsored by the LRWQCB and the TRWC Monday.

Both groups hope that the collaborative process will bring more resources and more knowledge to the plan – officially known as the Truckee River TMDL.

“It’s so critical to have the players involved,” said Cadie Olsen, engineering geologist for the LRWQCB. “To get the best solutions we need multiple minds.”

What is a TMDL?

TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load – or the amount of a pollutant a body of water can hold without damaging the body of water or damaging fish and wildlife habitats associated with the water source.

Most people tend to think of water pollution in terms of effluents – sewage or other chemicals that are poured or leaked directly into a water source.

These point-source pollutants, though, are not the only pollutants in California water sources.

“It’s not a clearly defined pollutant like a toxin might be,” Wallace said.

Up until 1991, Olsen said, the state focused primarily on point-source pollutants, but has since refocused its attention to nutrient and sediment pollutants.

Sedimentation is natural in rivers and other water sources, Olsen said, but when sedimentation is excessive – a line that is very difficult to draw – a water source can suffer.

“The key is understanding what it is we are doing to the landscape and how we may be creating inadvertent problems with the landscape,” Olsen said.

Besides dealing with current conditions during the TMDL process, officials will have to consider “legacy” sources – such as old logging roads that are now used for mountain biking, and even Interstate 80, built before planning and environmental regulations.

“Today, though, we have more information and more knowledge so we can make different decisions,” Wallace said.

Many factors can contribute to excessive sedimentation, which can affect drinking water sources, as well as wildlife habitats and recreation.

“The higher the velocity of a stream, the higher the sediment carrying capacity,” said Gayle Dana of the Desert Research Institute.

She said that high stream flow, caused primarily by spring runoff, rain-on-snow and summer thunderstorms, contributes to an increase in sedimentation. Fires, landslides and human caused erosion also aggravate the problem.

Dana also said that a 25 percent increase in sedimentation can cause a 45 percent decrease in Lahontan Cutthroat Trout.

Sediment producers

Because sediment is natural, and because some of the events that lead to sedimentation are also natural, defining exactly how much sediment is too much, becomes problematic.

Hiking, cycling, gardening and other everyday activities, as well as development, building roads and sanding or salting roads during the winter cause sedimentation, Olsen said.

Every day, every citizen in the Truckee Basin probably contributes unknowingly to pollution in the Truckee River, she said.

“It’s the changes outside the norm of the natural system that become problems,” Olsen said.

Truckee River Watershed Council Chairman Kathleen Eagan noted that the 1997 flood’s effects would have been much less detrimental had there been less human impacts and alterations to the river in recent and far history.

“It changed the functioning of the system,” she said.

The ups and downs of sedimentation are difficult to track over time, and scientists involved in the Truckee River TMDL will have to rely partially on baseline data collected in 1996 and 1997, as well as on data collected within the next couple of years.

“One of the things we’re concerned with is we know we’re at some point of excess,” Wallace said.

Science v. Politics

Science and politics are often at odds, but during the TMDL process organizers hope to achieve some sort of balance.

In the past, TMDLs have been challenged legally, and the LRWQCB and the TRWC hope to avoid litigation by involving all members of the community that have a stake in the water quality and water rights of the Truckee River.

“As of 1999, there were 45 actions in 35 states against TMDLs,” Olsen said at the meeting.

Harold Singer, the executive officer of the LRWQCB, noted that this is the first time in California that a TMDL has been formulated collaboratively.

“It’s essential that you bring all your ideas to the table,” he told the audience.

Participants in Monday night’s meeting wrote headlines on a mock newspaper to reflect what they hope the Truckee River TMDL will accomplish.

Some of the headlines sounded similar, but overall, the exercise demonstrated the large number of interests that will be participating in the public process over the next year.

“We really benefit when [the river] works the right way,” Eagan said.

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