The Southern California Bight Nutrient Loading Study

The coastal zone of Southern California is a highly built-up urban environment. Development in this region has been shown to significantly alter both the timing and rate of runoff releases to coastal waters and can affect water quality through addition of sediment, toxic chemicals, pathogens, and nutrients.  These nutrients provide ideal conditions for algal growth, which cause an increase in algal cells or a ‘bloom.’ Some algae contain harmful toxin which at high concentrations during algal blooms can have harmful impacts the ecosystem and the coastal economies; these are referred to as harmful algal blooms (HABs).

In 2008, the OPC provided $440,000 to the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project  (SCCWRP) to assess the magnitude and effects of anthropogenic and natural nutrient loadings in the Southern California Bights.   Funds for this  project are being used to sample and analyze nutrient loading from a variety of sources,  including gliders supplied by the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (SCOOS).  This information will serve to more thoroughly evaluate coastal processes that affect nutrient budgets and bloom responses in particular areas.   In particular, the project will evaluate the influence of nutrient sources on algal bloom events, particularly harmful algal blooms (HABS) that negatively impact the environment, human health, marine wildlife and coastal economies.  The study can offer important information about how to effectively monitor and combat chronic or sporadic nutrient loads throughout California’s waterways and can be used by state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine if and how nutrient discharges to the oceans need to be more tightly controlled.

Project Partners
Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project (SCCWRP)
Southern California Ocean Observing System (SCOOS)
California Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring and Alert Program (HABMAP)


Staff Recommendation (Nov 2008)
Second Regional Workshop on Harmful Algal Blooms in California Coastal Waters Workshop Proceedings (July 2010)

Ocean and coastal water quality

Beachgoers and wildlife need the same thing – clean ocean water. A relaxing day enjoying California’s waters can easily be undone by beach closures or widespread harmful algal blooms. With California’s coastal and ocean waters extending from the top of the watersheds to the deep waters off the coast, the Ocean Protection Council has made improving water quality a top priority.

The ocean is usually the end point of land-based pollutants that flow from coastal watersheds.  Nearshore impairment of water quality can result from municipal sewage discharges, industrial waste discharges, dredge spoils, and agricultural and urban runoff.  When water quality is poor, the ability of coastal ecosystems to support healthy fisheries, aquaculture, recreational opportunities, and other beneficial uses is undermined. The OPC is working to improve water quality through assisting agencies who enforce pollution control, encouraging new approaches to reduce non-point source pollution from land and point source pollution from vessels, eliminating harmful impacts from once-through cooling at power plants, boosting water quality testing programs and warning systems, and reducing marine debris.

Objectives of the Ocean and Coastal Water Quality Section of the 2006 – 2011 OPC strategic plan:

Objective stormwater drainage pipe1: Enforce Pollution Controls

To reduce pollution, we must improve how California’s water quality laws are enforced. Several agencies have responsibility to keep our water clean but they may be hampered by funding or conflicting legislation. The OPC seeks to coordinate and support the agencies and their programs to enforce existing water quality laws. For example, the OPC is working with the Department of Fish and Game and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to support overlapping goals of improving water quality and protecting fish, wildlife and other coastal resources.

Photo Credit: Green Infrastructure

Objective 2: Innovation

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, California has made great strides in reducing point source pollution from industrial and other operations.  Yet, there has been less progress in reducing pollutants from non-point sources, such as storm water flows from heavily paved urban environments, construction sites, and agricultural operations. Innovative approaches are needed to continue to clean up our waterways. To that end, the OPC has supported expanded use of low-impact development through a 2008 resolution and accompanying projects.

Objective 3: Once-thEl Segundorough Cooling

In California, 21 coastal power plants use once-through cooling, a process in which large volumes of seawater are drawn into the power plant to condense steam created during electricity generation. When this occurs, small organisms such as plankton and larvae are drawn into the cooling system and killed, and larger fish are pinned against the water intake screens.  Warm water is also discharged back into the ocean, which harms the resident sea life. The OPC has supported the work of the State Water Resources Control Board to eliminate once-through cooling in California since 2006 with the passage of the first OPC resolution.

Objective 4: Water Quality TestingCape Rodney NZ credit Miriam Godfrey

Planning to enjoy a day at California’s coast can be ruined when a beach is closed from contaminated ocean water. Rapid indicators of pathogen contamination could provide for more timely notice of beach closures and openings. The OPC has targeted predicting harmful algal blooms (HABs) as one of the first improvements to water quality testing off the California coast.

Objective 5: Marine Debris

Ocean ConservancyThe accumulation of land-based litter and ocean-based derelict fishing gear in the ocean has garnered much attention in the media. Scientific studies have found more than 260 marine species suffer from marine debris by ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement. Risks from toxins and contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) associated with marine debris are a growing research area. The OPC began to address marine debris and toxins with a 2007 resolution that seeks to reduce ocean and coastal debris and its impacts to ocean ecosystems.

Objective 6: Vessel Pollution

Ships are a vital part of the ocean economy from commercial transportation to recreational use. California’s myriad of ports and harbors host pleasure craft, cruise ships, and oil tankers, all of which can act as individual sources of pollution to the sea. The OPC seeks to reduce and eliminate pollution from vessels such as developing effective alternatives to anti-fouling hull paints.


Initiatives and Funded Projects

Enforce Pollution Controls

Department of Fish and Game/LA Regional Water Quality Control Board MOU on Enforcement

Low-Impact Development (LID)

Implementation of LID in California

Once Through Cooling

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

California Sea Grant project

Marine Debris

Implementation Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter

Toxicological Profiles

Plastic Substances Study

Master Environmental Assessment on Single-use and Reusable Bags

Derelict Fishing Gear Pilot Project


Contaminants of Emerging Concern Workshop

Low-Impact Development (LID)

As more impervious surfaces – roads, parking lots and buildings – are built in a watershed, more runoff is produced that is contaminated with oil, grease, metals, trash, bacteria, and other pollutants.  This polluted runoff enters our waterways and contributes to beach closures, depressed fish populations and harmful algal blooms, all of which hurt our economy directly or indirectly. Increased flow may cause stream beds and banks to erode, damaging or eliminating stream habitat and carrying sediment downstream.  Low-Impact Development (LID) is a set of stormwater management strategies that reduces impervious surfaces, treats runoff, controls runoff peaks and durations, and thereby helps protect water quality and stream resource integrity.


LID works.  Its implementation is being fast-tracked by the federal government (most notably, the Department of Defense) and in many states.  In California, the State and Regional Water Boards are already incorporating LID into their Statewide Construction and Municipal NPDES permit requirements.  In early January 2008, the State Board released a policy analysis that examines the State’s primary mechanisms of regulating stormwater runoff and considers how LID approaches could be used for compliance purposes.  Many local communities in California are also adopting LID requirements and practices.

LID can also benefit the business community.  In December 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a new report entitled “Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development (LID) Strategies and Practices.”  The report contains 17 case studies from across North America that show the economic viability of LID practices.  The report demonstrates that, in almost all cases, LID can reduce project costs while improving environmental performance. Total capital savings ranged from 15 to 80 percent, with one exception in which LID project costs were higher than conventional stormwater management costs. As LID practices become more common, it is likely that they will become cheaper to use.

Promoting LID in California was included in the 2008 OPC program priorities and at the February 2008 meeting, a report was presented to the Council exploring state and local policies that encourage or require LID. At the May 15, 2008 meeting, the OPC adopted a resolution regarding LID. As stated in the resolution, the OPC found LID to be a practicable and superior approach to minimizing and mitigating increases in runoff and runoff pollutants due to land development. Further, LID is cost-effective, has many ancillary benefits, and in most cases can be executed at lower cost than conventional drainage systems. Three topics were identified for action by the OPC to promote LID: state leadership, state regulatory action, and incentives, technical support and research. The resolution also included various items the OPC could consider funding to promote LID. Since the adoption of the resolution, the OPC has engaged with the Natural Resources Agency, California EPA, the Office of Planning and Research, Caltrans, the Building Standards Commission and the Department of Water Resources to encourage incorporation of the principles of LID in projects and standards. Standards for regulatory actions are also being developed by the State Water Board with assistance from the California Coastal Commission and the OPC.


The OPC awarded funds to Tetra Tech to examine the state and local policies that encourage or require the use of LID.  The final report,  “State and Local Policies Encouraging or Requiring Low Impact Development in California” (January 2008 ) serves as a clearinghouse for LID activities throughout the state, although as LID becomes more widespread, newer projects are not described.

Council Documents

OPC Resolution Regarding LID

February 29, 2008 LID Memo


US EPA LID information

Project Schedule

As called for in the OPC Resolution, the Office of Planning and Research and OPC staff are working together to produce a technical advisory regarding the use of LID. The advisory was completed in summer 2009.

Other portions of the OPC Resolution are being enacted with the relevant agencies.

Photo Credit: Green Infrastructure

Photo Credit: Green Infrastructure

Once-through Cooling at Coastal Power Plants

The Ocean Protection Council previously funded feasibility studies on once-through cooling at power plants to help facilitate new State Water Resources Control Board requirements. Additional information is below.

Partner Agencies
State Water Resources Control Board
California Energy Commission