San Francisco Bay Nutrient Management Strategy Serves as Model

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Nutrient pollution, caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, is one of America's most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems. For the San Francisco Bay, the West Coast’s largest estuary and home to over seven million people, algal blooms, fish kills and other nutrient-related environmental impacts have generally not been seen despite 37 wastewater treatment plants discharging to the Bay without full-scale nutrient treatment.  A growing body of scientific evidence suggests, however, that the San Francisco Bay’s assimilative capacity for nutrients could be weakening, but it is not yet known whether the estimated $12 billion region-wide price tag for nutrient removal upgrades for wastewater treatment plants would provide any significant environmental benefit. 

In order to understand and respond to San Francisco Bay nutrient concerns, wastewater treatment plants in the region, regulators, scientific research entities, and non-governmental organizations created the San Francisco Bay Nutrient Management Strategy (NMS) to facilitate coordination on regulatory development, scientific research, and alternatives analysis of treatment technologies and management strategies with the following specific benefits and results:

  • The Program’s straightforward and transparent governance structure maximizes the effectiveness of stakeholder input and minimizes administrative burdens. In particular, the Nutrient Watershed Permit, negotiated through the NMS structure, benefits both dischargers and regulators as it obviates the need for multiple individual permits.
  • The NMS Science Plan (funded by the dischargers in accordance with the Permit) has developed a receiving water monitoring program and a robust hydrodynamic model for the Bay, forming a sound scientific basis for future regulatory decisions that will impact millions of people and protect a large and critically important estuarine environment.
  • The Program’s Alternatives Analysis includes evaluations of established and cutting-edge wastewater treatment technologies (such as biological nutrient removal and anammox treatment) as well as assessments of strategies that go beyond wastewater treatment plant processes and achieve multiple benefits (wetlands creation, water recycling, water quality trading, etc.).

The NMS program’s regional collaborative approach benefits the environment by developing the appropriate regulatory response to the nutrient challenge; benefits the utilities by fully evaluating the alternatives to arrive at the best overall solution; and benefits the community by spending cost-effectively to reduce the financial burden to individual households, while ensuring protection of the Bay. The approach identifies nutrient management solutions that are well-suited to the unique set of scientific, regulatory, and economic challenges in San Francisco Bay and serves as a model for other watersheds nationwide. NACWA Public Agency Member the East Bay Municipal Utility District sought recognition for the program on behalf of the NMS Steering Committee, which includes several other NACWA members from the region. The program was honored this year with a NACWA National Environmental Achievement Award in the Special Recognition category.