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A new diet for North Coast rivers

February 4, 2009 |  7:27 pm

Fish_pollution

Total Maximum Daily Load shouldn’t be confused with the latest dietary fiber standard. In the real world of rivers and environmental regulations, the alphabet soup that is TMDL has long been feared and fought over on the rugged north coast of California.

Now a coalition of conservation and fishing groups is pushing to end the battle once and for all.

In plain English, TMDL standards set the limit for how much sediment and other pollutants are allowed in rivers and streams. Scientists say the North Coast’s waterways long have been degraded by runoff from logging, mining, agriculture, grazing and urban development.

The result has been declining conditions that have undercut fish, most notably salmon and steelhead, now on the endangered species list. Recent years have seen commercial and recreational salmon fishing cut or dramatically curtailed because of declining river health.

Enter TMDL. More than a decade ago, environmentalists sued to force regulators to aggressively implement the Clean Water Act’s TMDL standards on the North Coast. The result was a decree requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set pollution limits for 17 North Coast rivers and streams by 2007.

Although the feds have completed most of that work, state water quality agencies have cemented cleanup plans for just three of the rivers. State officials say budget and staff cutbacks have hamstrung their efforts. But environmentalists want to force the issue and get the North Coast’s rivers back on the road to health.

A coalition that includes the Sierra Club and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. sued anew Wednesday in San Francisco to prod the state and regional water boards to come up with plans of action for the remaining rivers.

The time for excuses is over, said Scott Greacen of the Environmental Protection Information Center. "The state has dragged its feet and ignored the law for far too long."

-- Eric Bailey

Photo: Robert Caustin inspects silt from the water. High levels of pollutants have been found in fish and mud. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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