Clean Water Act & You: You’re invited

If dam removal is the cornerstone of Klamath River restoration, improved water quality is the foundation. And, while many actions are needed to clean up water quality – like improving livestock, forestry, and wastewater treatment practices – it is ultimately the Clean Water Act that provides the regulatory impetus to ensure these important changes are made. Like many laws, the Clean Water Act works best when citizens breathe life into it.

Our job is to get you past the confusing language and processes and make it simple for citizens to restore the Klamath by using the Clean Water Act. Check out the links and info below to get started.

A citizen’s guide to restoring the Klamath

What is the Clean Water Act?

Who regulates it? States do the dirty work…

Making the list: The 303(d) section
What’s up with Klamath’s 303(d) listings?

Where the rubber hits the road: The TMDL process.

Klamath TMDLs in a nutshell

The Clean Water Act
In the 1970s the leaders of the United States realized it was time to make our nation’s polluted waters fishable and swimmable once more, so they created the Clean Water Act. Its primary goal is “…to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Though one of the original objectives was to complete the clean-up by the mid-1980s, 30 years later we are still unable to safely swim and fish in over half of America’s waterways – including much of the Klamath River. Despite this, the Clean Water Act remains our primary tool for cleaning up water quality on the Klamath River.

River Network’s Clean Water Act primer – The course is easy and free
US EPA’s Intro to the Clean Water Act – Comprehensive
The Clean Water Act – Complete text version

Who regulates it? States do the dirty work…

The first thing you need to know is that much of the permitting, regulation, and monitoring the CWA uses to restore water quality is regulated at the state level and (hopefully) implemented with local assistance. In our case, this is the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in California, and the Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) and other agencies in Oregon. So when these agencies have public meetings or comment periods on Klamath issues, you should be there!

Sometimes the agencies charged with carrying out implementation of pollution rules have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality is 60% funded by the industries it regulates, making objective enforcement difficult for the agency. Regulation of agricultural water pollution in Oregon is also supposed to come from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which is not qualified or motivated to monitor and enforce water quality violations.

Worse, many of the Klamath’s tributaries are regulated by entities like Siskiyou County and local Resource Conservation Districts. While these agencies may include well-intentioned individuals, they have not proved willing or able to enforce compliance with mandatory clean water laws, and as a result, the Shasta, Scott, Williamson, Sprague and others are still plagued by flow, temperature, and nutrient pollution.

Making the list: The 303(d) section

A waterbody can get protection only after it is listed as impaired under section 303(d) of the CWA, commonly called the 303(d) list. Every two years, the CWA requires each state to submit a detailed report on their state’s water quality to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The list must include all waterbodies that are polluted or “impaired” by a wide array of pollutants such as heavy metals, bacteria, nutrients, toxic algae, sediment, or even high temperatures. Listings can be for all or only part of a river system, and each lake or stretch of river can have multiple listings.
Getting a waterway on this list (and keeping it there!) is an important first step for water advocates, and we’ve been successful in listing some of the Klamath’s more polluted stretches under the 303(d) section (though sometimes it has taken lawsuits to do it). The Klamath’s 303(d) listings can be found at:

  • OR Klamath 303(d) listings – Oregon DEQ: Scroll to the bottom of the online database, and select either “LOST” or “UPPER KLAMATH” under the Watershed/USGS 4th Field HUC drop-down menu to view all the 303(d) listings in these subbasins.
  • CA Klamath 303(d) listings – California’s NCRWQCB: All impaired waterbodies are listed in a spreadsheet document, Klamath listings are on the bottom of page 1 and all of page 2. More background is on the state’s 303(d) information page.

Where the rubber hits the road: The TMDL process

Once a waterway makes the 303(d) list, state agencies need to come up with pollution limits and a plan for setting and enforcing them. The CWA uses TMDLs, or Total Maximum Daily Loads, to assign numeric pollution limits for 303(d)-listed waterways. A good TMDL should put a waterway on a strict pollution “diet” where discharges and land-use practices must be changed to achieve specific water quality goals.

In many cases, TMDLs become a battle between polluters and clean water advocates with under-funded agencies in the middle. In other cases, TMDLs become an educational process as people who may be unintentionally polluting improve practices and bring their activities into compliance with water quality standards. We have both situations on the Klamath. While many watershed groups, ranchers, tribes, and citizens are working to clean up the river, there are still many places where land use practices or pollution discharges (called “point-source” pollution) require serious regulation with dedicated citizen oversight.

We are currently in the middle of the largest TMDL development the Klamath has ever seen, with water quality officials from Oregon and California working with the EPA to develop and implement a major TMDL and action plan for the mainstem Klamath River. These TMDLs will also relate to interim water quality conditions in the final dam removal deal. Unfortunately, while strong TMDLs are in the works, without citizen support, they’re vulnerable to opposition from entities like Siskiyou County who are hostile to environmental regulation. Because water-polluting habits are unlikely to shift without strong regulations, it is important that people who care about clean water speak up and support the Water Board and ODEQ in setting rock-solid TMDLs for the Klamath.

Klamath Watershed TMDLs – in a nutshell

The Klamath Watershed has been staggering through the Clean Water Act’s TMDL process for many years with mixed results. Many sub-basins, like the Shasta, Scott, Upper Klamath Lake drainage, and Salmon Rivers, are in some phase of TMDL development or implementation. The long-awaited mainstem Klamath River TMDLs are finally being released this year. Others, like the Lost and Trinity Rivers, have not been properly regulated with TMDLs – KRK is part of a lawsuit to address this lack of action.

Here’s a few highlights:

The mainstem Klamath TMDL

The Klamath River is going through a collaborative TMDL process undertaken by the US EPA, the Cal. Water Board, and Oregon’s DEQ. California finished its draft of this major document in the summer of 2009, will have another public comment period on revisions ending in February ’10, and expects to adopt a final Klamath TMDL in March ’10. Oregon expects to release its part of the joint plan in early 2010, though a date has not been announced. Together, this inter-state Klamath TMDL is tasked with regulating pollution from PacifiCorp’s dams, the Klamath Project in Oregon, agricultural and grazing practices, suction dredge and other mining, municipal and county sewage facilities near Klamath Falls, and many other activities. The mainstem Klamath TMDL is also meant to set pollution loading limits at the mouths of tributaries, so could and should have a regulatory impact on land uses on rivers like the Scott & Shasta, whose respective TMDLs have not been effective due to their reliance on voluntary clean ups.

The Shasta River TMDL

The Shasta River is widely known for its fall from grace as the most productive salmon river in California, mile for mile. With coho returns you can count on your fingers, the Shasta is now plagued by high temperatures, poor water quality, and tiny stream flows resulting from agricultural water diversions and Dwinnell Dam. Its TMDL went into effect in early 2007, and rightly calls for increased water flows. While many landowners are earnestly working toward meeting the TMDL objectives of lowering temperature and increasing flows, the State Water Board stipulated flows could not be increased through water right processes, which stymies total flow restoration. The TMDL’s glaring omission of tributary impacts and those of the festering Dwinnell Reservoir/Lake Shastina also make it unlikely to rescue the Shasta from the 303(d) list.

The Scott River TMDL

The water quality disaster known as the Scott River TMDL went into effect in late 2006 and is criticized widely because it puts Siskiyou County and the Siskiyou County Resource Conservation District in charge of monitoring, implementation, and self-enforcement. It does not address cumulative impacts of timber harvest and roads, nor does it designate cold-water refugia needed by fish. Regularly dewatered and abused, the Scott needs a much stronger and objectively enforced TMDL.
The Lost River TMDL

Lying across the California/Oregon border, the Lost River basin was not historically connected to the Klamath River in a significant way. After last century’s extensive reworking of upper basin hydrology, the Lost is now the epicenter of Klamath Project irrigation lands. Not unlike someone taking your car for a joyride, the Lost is implicated both in “borrowing” Klamath flows, and in returning them in much worse condition. Frought with lawsuits and shuffled between agencies, the Lost TMDL process is a battleground between Project irrigators and Tribes and others interested in water quality. The draft released in 2007 was so bad, it was sent back to the drawing board. Though aspects of the plan have been incorporated into the mainstem Klamath TMDL, the full lower Lost River TMDL has yet to be completed and adopted.

The Upper Klamath Lake TMDL

The Upper Klamath Lake TMDL released in 2004 includes the Williamson, Sprague and Sycan Rivers, tributaries which send a heavy nutrient load into Upper Klamath Lake and in turn the Klamath River. The TMDL plan aims to reduce phosphorous in the lake through restoration and adaptive management but will likely need a tight mainstem TMDL that mandates strong pollution limits at the Lake’s output to have a meaningful impact on Upper Basin land use. Ever contentious is the issue of what percentage of the system’s nutrients are “natural” and what percentage are a result of poor forestry and agricultural practices.