Regulatory Process for Clean Water

To protect and restore San Diego’s waters from pollution, we must navigate these regional and federal systems. Many of San Diego’s creeks, lagoons, rivers and beaches regularly exceed safe levels of pollution. Our Regional Water Quality Control Board puts chronically polluted waterbodies on a list of impaired waters, called the 303(d) List, and San Diego has its own 303(d) List. Once listed as impaired, the waterbody is targeted for a restoration plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load, kind of like a pollution diet.

This, of course, is how we can improve already polluted waters. To prevent unnecessary pollution from reaching our waters, we also monitor permits for discharge — the legal mechanisms that allow a large corporation, the military or local government to dump toxins into San Diego’s water. We ensure polluters apply for permits and follow the limitations.

303(d) List

san diego 303d

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The Clean Water Act – the federal law that lays out the legal requirement for protecting, maintaining and improving the health of our water bodies – is our most powerful tool for making sure San Diego’s water is healthy.  It mandates that all states identify creeks, rivers and shorelines that are severely impaired by pollution.  When existing management efforts can’t control the levels of pollution and the ability of the water to support all of its uses (swimming, fishing, habitat for endangered species, just to name a few), that water segment must be placed on the Impaired Waters list. We officially known it as the “Clean Water Act Section 303(d) List of Water Quality Limited Segments” or more simply, the 303 (d) list.

California must evaluate the health of its water segments every two years to determine whether any of them must be added to, or hopefully removed from, the 303(d) list. The proposed list must go through three levels of official approval: the Regional Water Board, the State Water Board and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Once the 303(d) list is finalized, the water body segments on it must be prioritized for the initiation of a cleanup plan called a Total Maximum Daily Limit (TMDL) to improve water quality.

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303(d) in San Diego

The San Diego Water Board adopted the 2008 303(d) List on December 16, 2009. Currently, the Regional Water Board is gathering water quality data and information to update the statewide list of severely polluted waters for 2012. In the San Diego region, we have 274 water body segments on the 2008 list for some type of pollution—156 of these require a TMDL. Any water body can be listed for multiple pollutants. If you count the impairment per pollutant for each water body, the number of listed segments skyrockets from 274 to 1570.

The 303(d) list is an important tool for Coastkeeper. It allows us to understand where the greatest problems are. We are able to directly influence the knowledge that decision-makers have by collecting, analyzing and submitting the data we collect on the health of our local waterways through our water quality monitoring program.

The Clean Water Act created the process of Total Daily Maximum Loads (TMDL) to restore and rehabilitate waters that don’t attain water quality standards (i.e. goals to protect aquatic life, drinking water and other water uses).  When waterbodies – lakes, creeks, beaches, bays – are identified as impaired, they are listed on the Clean Water Act’s 303(d) list.  Once listed, there is a requirement to develop a restoration plan, called a TMDL, for the specific waterbody and the associated pollutant.

Total Daily Maximum Loads (TMDL)


California Coastkeeper’s Map of Impaired Waters

The TMDL document identifies all the pollutant “loads” that go into a waterbody.  For instance, parts of San Diego Bay are impaired for copper.  The TMDL identifies the sources of the contamination, such as copper from brake pads, copper from leaching paint on boat hulls and legacy copper from decades of shipyard sandblasting.  Next, the TMDL determines how much copper can enter the bay before water quality standards can’t be met.  Once the Regional Water Board determines the size of the “copper pie,” it can allocate the pieces to the contributors of copper.  Although the acronym stands for “daily load,” the allocation can be expressed as a yearly load. Because the amount of copper exceeds the size of the pie each contributor must make reductions in their loads.  Generally, a certain amount of time, ranging up to 20 years, will be given to make these reductions.

After a TMDL is adopted, the implementation phase begins, and an action plan is developed by the pollutant contributors to meet the TMDL (including reductions, if necessary).  Even though there are hundreds of water body-pollutant combinations that require a TMDL, only six have been adopted so far. A few others are in development.  Check out California Coastkeeper’s map of impaired waters

Coastkeeper works with stakeholders and Regional Board staff to craft effective TMDL restoration plans for many different areas:

    • The Los Penasquitos Lagoon is impaired for sediment (silt and sand impact aquatic wildlife).  We lead a stakeholder group to develop an implementation plan and numeric targets for this sediment impairment.
    • For the 20 beaches and creeks impaired by pathogens, Coastkeeper advocated for a strong multi-area Bacteria TMDL.  After six years, the Regional Board approved the plan in 2010.  The work is now in the implementation phase.
    • Shelter Island Yacht Basin, a popular recreational marina at the north end of San Diego Bay received a TMDL for copper in 2005. Coastkeeper works with the Port of San Diego and stakeholders to replace copper-based paint on boat hulls with non-copper alternatives.