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What is TMDL and why does it matter to you?

What is TMDL?

A Total Maximum Daily Load establishes a maximum limit for a specific pollutant that can be discharged into a water body without causing it to become impaired. Of primary interest to the Los Angeles readers here are levels of trash, bacteria, and nitrogen that grace our waterways. As you know, ecosystems and watersheds are natural systems that move liquids and objects from high elevations to low -- from uplands to waterways and finally, the ocean. People are affected when they touch that water, swallow it...or eat fish, etc. that ingest it. That's why it matters to us, even though we might be very good about our own ecological impact on our local environment.

Los Angeles, being the huge urban community that it is, is also the site of huge souces of pollutants that blow, run and wash into our water system. Some of these pollutants are from big industry...and big public utility services -- but a lot of it is produced by individuals in their daily lives. Things like letting trash blow away, flicking a cigarette butt onto the roadside, letting bottle caps and grocery bags get away from us, fertilizing our lawns, watering lawns too much...innocent actions that accumulate.

When we realize the larger scope of how 20 million individuals' little actions impact our urban environment we start to make changes. That's how TMDLs can help us -- help us prioritize our lifestyle choices for change. So here's a brief rundown of three major pollutants in Los Angeles...with details that will help you come up with your own strategies for living cleaner and greener.

Trash TMDLs

The Trash TMDL requires 10% reduction per year on the discharges of trash to the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek. The City’s strategy involves targeting these high trash-generation areas with institutional controls such as:
  • Anti-littering Enforcement
  • Street sweeping
  • Catch basin cleaning
  • Abandoned trash pick-ups
  • Trash Receptacles
  • Educational anti-littering outreach
  • Community clean-up programs
In addition to the above actions, the City is planning to retrofit approximately 10,000 catch basins, located within the high trash-generation areas, with devices that will prevent trash from entering the storm drain system. The City is also working with Los Angeles County to retrofit about 3,400 County-owned catch basins within these high trash generation areas.

Bacteria TMDLs

Dry-Weather There are 25 storm drains that discharge runoff from some portion of Los Angeles to Santa Monica Bay beaches. Even during dry weather, urban runoff is dangerous -- especially dangerous because of the high contaminant levels. When wet spots and dry creeks stay wet all the time -- versus drying out, bacteria has a very productive breeding environment. Over-watering lawns, dumping liquids in storm dains, etc. make that bacterial breeding environment a continual problem.

LA beaches are a treasure to us -- offering a touch of nature, respite from heat, and a source of marine foods -- but bacterial pollutants reduce the value of this natural resource. Closed beaches are just one impact. Bacterial indicators that are measured at public beaches include total coliform, fecal coliform, enterococcus, and a fecal-to-total coliform ratio.

Sounds gross to me!


Nitrogen compounds (ammonia and nitrate) and related effects such as algae, pH, odor, and scum are TMDL listed because water quality nitrogen compounds and related effects impair warm, freshwater, wildlife habitats, and recreational uses.

The principal source of nitrogen compounds to the Los Angeles River is from Publicly Owned Treatment Plants (POTWs). During dry weather period, the major POTWs contribute 84% of the total dry weather nitrogen load.

Urban runoff, stormwater, and groundwater discharge may also contribute to the nitrogen loadings.

While it is easy to point a finger at the public treatment plants for putting nitrogen into the water system -- we have to remember who puts the nitrogen into the water that treatment plant treat...

Us. Individuals. Families. Businesses.

The nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of tailpipes and smokestacks, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes. Modern industry and agriculture produce more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially — than all natural processes on land. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, enter the ocean every day.

These pollutants feed excessive growth of harmful algae and bacteria.

At the same time, overfishing and destruction of wetlands have diminished the competing sea life and natural buffers that once held the microbes and weeds in check. (Source: LA Times)

In 1998, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with other environmental groups, sued the EPA for failure to move forward in a timely manner with this program. This action resulted in a consent decree and a 13-year schedule to complete over 90 TMDLs, 67 affecting the City of Los Angeles. The TMDL Program is a top priority for both the State Board and the Regional Board.

TMDLs are the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet its water quality designation. A TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards, and an allocation of that amount to the pollutant's sources.

Thus far (2006), seven TMDLs having an impact on the City of Los Angeles have been adopted. The adoption process can be lengthy and involves the approval of the following entities: Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board (LARWQCB), State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), Office of Administrative Law, and the United Sates Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

The quiet creep of environmental decay, occurring largely unnoticed over many years, drastically alters the ecosystem in which we live -- but which we ignore because we're caught up in our daily struggles.

We CAN make better choices -- that's why TMDLs matter to us.