A meeting of the North Coast Regional Water Board this Thursday, October 5th, will have a major impact on water quality in Humboldt Bay. Surfrider is urging activists to defend the Bay from weak sewage treatment standards that threaten to make us sick and harm marine ecosystems.
At Thursday’s Board meeting, the Regional Water Board will be updating a Clean Water Permit that will set ‘allowable discharges’ of pollutants for the Elk River Treatment Plant. The plant treats sewage for about 33% of Humboldt County’s population, and the discharge standards set in the permit are important to the health of people who recreate in the Bay, as well as to the Bay’s more than 125 species of fish and shellfish.
In the past three years for instance, the Plant has released pollutants that exceed standards for safe ocean recreation water set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency 28 times. This rate of discharge is inconsistent with the State’s Enclosed Bays and Estuaries Policy (EBEP), which prohibits discharges into bays that are “not consistently treated in a way that would enhance the quality of receiving waters.” In other words, the Plant has been in violation of the Clean Water Act dozens of times in recent memory.
Surfrider supports the issuance of an updated Clean Water permit to establish safe pollutant standards, but we are very concerned that the permit currently allows the City of Eureka twenty years to come into compliance with these safe standards.
Not only is twenty years too long to allow the City to dump chlorine, human waste, and ammonia into the Bay at levels that are potentially toxic for human health, this allowance is also inconsistent with a federal court decision ordering the City to bring the plant into compliance by 2031, and to develop a work plan outlining how the plant will achieve compliance by December 2023. The Regional Water Board’s Clean Water Act permit should be crafted to comport with the terms of the federal court decision so that no confusion is created about when the City’s treatment plant needs to come into compliance. Such a decision would also eliminate up to 10 years of unnecessary toxic discharges.
Surfrider is also concerned that the permit language does not acknowledge the need to prepare the Elk River Plant for sea level rise. Sea level is rising more than twice as fast in Humboldt Bay as in the rest of California due to tectonic subsidence, which threatens to cause flooding to coastal adjacent properties and impact groundwater rise. The Elk River plant is highly vulnerable to flooding by 2100 and potentially well before then, which presents a clear risk of sewage spills and sewage overflows.
Under normal operation and due to rain events, sewage overflows already occur often - approximately 63 occurred in Humboldt County since 2020 and we urge the Water Board to add language to the permit prohibiting sanitary sewage overflows.
Finally, the updated permit should require the City to monitor enterococci at no less than four sites in the Bay (the current permit proposes one site) because the Bay is large with multiple key recreation spots spread throughout. Monitoring only two sites for enterococci will give an incomplete indication of whether water quality is safe near local recreation spots, kayak entry points, and harvesting operations.
Monitoring should begin immediately (rather than on the proposed permit timeline of December 2025) because monitoring for enterococcus is both vital for community awareness around potentially dangerous water quality, and relatively easy for the City to complete. Surfrider volunteers monitor enterococcus at 164 sites throughout California as part of our Blue Water Task Force, which is an effort to monitor coastal water quality and increase awareness about pollutants. In San Diego alone, volunteers monitor enterococcus at 10 sites weekly.
Call to Action
Thursday’s Water Board meeting is our chance to protect Humboldt Bay from further degraded water quality. Sign the petition so Surfrider staff can tell the Water Board how many of us care about clean water in the Bay.
A fantastic way to show support is also to show up to City Hall on Thursday at 9 AM and comment on Item 4! You can also call in virtually by filling out this speaker card by Wednesday night and joining the meeting via zoom.
Commenters should introduce themselves and emphasize that they:
- support the comments of the Surfrider Foundation
- support a compliance schedule that comports with the federal court decision and reduces ten years of dirty discharges into the Bay
- support monitoring of bacteria in at least four sites in the Bay to keep the public informed about unsafe water quality
- support language acknowledging the need to plan for sea level rise and to prohibit sanitary sewage overflows in order to reduce sewage spills
Thank you for protecting Humboldt Bay with us.