THE KILLING OF OUR WATERS
BY SHARON TETRAULT

 

It costs money to be near water in Southern California. Almost invariably, the most expensive homes are those on the beach, on a harbor or alongside a lake.

Within condominium and commercial developments, the same principal usually applies. The most desirable units are those that abut a lake or stream. Ironically, though, this scramble to be nearer to the water usually ends at the lake's edge, Murky, chemical laden waters make many manmade bodies of water something to be seen, not touched. These mini environmental disasters, which may number in the thousands in Orange County, are the focus of one environmentally conscious company. Ecoquatics of Modjeska Canyon has built its business around cleaning up polluted lakes, streams, ponds and fountains. Its unique niche is the restoration and maintenance of water systems by biological, nonchemical means.

A typical job involves the reahabilitation of a decorative lake or pond in a commercial development or condominium project. Almost always, the water is so heavily polluted that visibility has been reduced to just a few inches. And, invariably, the culprit is a maintenance company that has dumped enormous amounts of chemicals into the water in an attempt to purify it.

"It's a vicious cycle," says Shelly Solomon, a biologist and landscape architect who cofounded Ecoquatics in 1994 with her partner, David Cowling, an aquatic mechanical systems specialist. "Chemicals are being created at great cost to the environment and then shipped to Orange County. We then dump the chemicals into our waters in a futile effort to clean them, but in fact we create even more polllution. Unfortunately, most people don't even know that the job can be done biologically."

The widespread use of Chemicals within the water maintenance industry is common. Most companies rely heavily on algaecides high in copper sulfate and chlorine to clean waters. Ecoquatics by contrast, uses aquatic plants and aquatic life to do the same job organically. Typically, Ecoquatics arrives on the scene when the water is in such dismal concition that it has become an eyesore rather than an aesthetic centerpiece.

At "The Lakes at Carmel del Mar" in San Diego, the condominium complex's five lakes resembled cesspools. "They looked like pea soup with a thick slab of mozzarella on the top," said Theresa Walker, a resident at Carmel who successfully petitioned the association to hire Ecoquatics.

By far, the most troublesome chemical that Ecoquatics confronts is copper sulfate. This over the counter chemical is widely used and highly toxic. Maintenance companies use it liberally to kill algae and bacteria. Its destruction, however, isn't limited to just the lake where it is used. Even if a manmade lake has no direct access to a natural waterway the chemicals often seep through its concrete bottom and make their way into the surrounding soil and eventually into the water table. In marinas, copperbased paint is applied to boats to prevent barnacles from growing on the hulls. When the paint flakes or is scraped off, the copper settles in the sediment at the harbor bottom and poses a serious threat to sea life.

"It leaves our waters dead," says Solomon. The greater destruction, however, occurs at chemical production sites. At Iron Mountain near Redding, CA, the mining of copper and other metals has created the largest toxic waste site in the West. Although mining has long since ended, hundreds of pounds of copper and zinc still pour into the Sacramento River daily. It is estimated that Iron Mountain accounts for 25 percent of all the copper and zinc surface water pollution.

Just how widespread the use of copper sulfate is in Orange County is not known. "Generally, privately owned lakes are not monitored so we wouldn't regulate their use of copper or chlorine," says Kurt Berchtold, Assistant Executive Officer with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Berchtold says that although permits are required before manmade lakes can be drained, few are requested.

So where is the contaminated water being discharged? "more than likely it goes down a storm drain, enters a flood control channel and then makes its way out to the ocean," says Berchtold. Periodic testing is done on flood control water, but it usually takes two weeks to get the results, by which time the polluted water is long gone. And in any event, testing is primarily done to characterize, not stop, pollutants going into the ocean.

Draining contaminated water is a last resort for Ecoquatics. At one project, in an exclusive community in Newport Beach, there was no other alternative, however. The community's two lakes had such concentrations of copper sulfate that Ecoquatics initially declined the project because of health concerns. Cleaning the sludge would be a Herculean task, yet dumping it elsewhere would cause environmental damage of a different sort. Ecoquatics proposed draining of the water and cleaning the sludge with plant life, a costly and time consuming task.

Wearing protective gloves, Solomon and Cowling carefully drained the rust colored waters. They then washed down the sides of the lakes with fresh water and refilled them. Afterwards, hundreds of aquatic plants were introduced into the lake in an effort to counteract the high chemical content. Within weeks, though, the copper residue in the sludge had killed off most of the plants.

Even today, after 18 months of treatment, dead plants still float to the surface. The sturdier plants that have survived are slowly removing immeasurable amounts of copper from the sludge. Water clarity is now at three feet, up from four inches before. "That's pretty good considering the state of the water when we started," says Cowling.

An ecosystem is also starting to take root in the cleaner waters. Dragon fly, larvae, and swimming bugs have reappeared, along with birds. "I saw a giant blue heron on one end of the lake and an egret at the other end on my last visit there," says Cowling, who has begun stocking the lake with fish. He speculates that the ducks stayed away in the past because the copper may have been painful for them and the lake was devoid of any food source. "Now there's a reason for the birds to come here."

One of the company's biggest projects was restoring the 1.6 million gallon lake at Lakeshore Towers in Irvine. Before Ecoquatics was hired in 1994, a maintenance company was pouring 800 pounds of chemicals a week into the nine foot waters to control the algae. Ducks had long stopped dropping by and whether any of the stocked fish remained could not be determined through the murky waters. On a good day, visibility might reach four inches.

For months, Solomon and Cowling labored almost daily on the project. ''We would get surges of clarity and then the waters would go cloudy again," says Solomon. The problem, they would soon discover, was fertilizer runoff from the surrounding greenbelts, which was creating large algae blooms. At about the six month point, with management becoming antsy and Solomon frustrated, the waters suddenly cleared.

"Our lake was so bad that if you stuck your thumb underwater you couldn't see it," says Diane Scott, senior property manager for Lakeshore Towers. "We wanted clear water, but we also wanted to stop the overuse of chemicals because we Knew they were destructive to the environment."

The impetus for change usually comes from one ecologically minded individual. At Avian Court in Irvine, for example, the owner of the office complex became fed up with the artificial smell and color of the decorative stream. "We referred to it as the Tidy Blue stream" says Roger Doebke, who hired Ecoquatics shortly after buying the building two years ago. "The chemicals gave it a Tidy Blue color and a very unpleasant odor. Since going biological, our waters are cleaner than ever before."

Solomon came up with the idea for Ecoquatics three years ago. At the time, she was working as a wetland and wildlife specialist for her other business, Land and Sea Landscape Architects. Most of all her clients were developers who were trying to comply with strict state and federal regulations. When the building industry slowed because of the recession, the destruction of habitats also declined. Although Solomon was thankful for the reduced development, it also meant less work for her. In searching for new business opportunities, it occurred to Solomon that her work with natural wetlands could be expanded into an urban context. She recruited Cowling for his expertise in building and repairing pumps and other aquatic mechanisms. Ecoquatics' current clientele suits Solomon better. "It was very difficult to work for developers. They were hiring me out of necessity. I'm now working with homeowners and office management companies who are genuinely interested in cleaning up the environment. It's very refreshing to receive praise and support from my clients."

Sharon Tetrault is a freelance writer based in Orange County, California. Her work appears in Orange Coast Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine and Westways Magazine. She earned her Bachetor's Degree in international relations and a Master's Degree in print journalism from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her articles have covered new businesses, political issues and women's topics.


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