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  • Draft framework unveiled for assessing human health impacts of contaminated sediment

    November 20, 2017: SCCWRP and its partners have completed development of a standardized sediment assessment framework intended to better protect the health of humans who consume seafood caught in enclosed bays and estuaries in California.

    The draft framework, published as a SCCWRP technical report in October, is being considered for adoption by the State Water Board to define for environmental managers how to implement California’s Sediment Quality Objective (SQO) for protection of human health. 

    The human health SQO – one of three adopted by the State Water Board in 2008 for enclosed bays and estuaries – is a one-sentence regulatory target that calls on sediment contamination to not be present “at levels that will bioaccumulate in aquatic life to levels that are harmful to human health.” 

    SCCWRP and its partners have spent more than a decade conceptualizing, building and vetting the human health SQO framework to create a standardized technical definition of what it means to be in compliance with this regulatory target. 

    California’s environmental management community will be able to use the framework to inform decision-making on issues like setting appropriate sediment clean-up targets. 

    The draft framework relies on standardized, quantitative indicators of sediment contamination’s human health effects to score the quality of sediment in enclosed bays and estuaries. Indicator scores are classified into condition categories ranging from “unimpacted” to “clearly impacted.” 

    The human health framework is designed to complement California’s SQO assessment framework for the protection of sediment-dwelling aquatic life, which was adopted by the State Water Board and approved for regulatory use in enclosed bays and estuaries in 2009. Both frameworks use standardized, quantitative indicators with defined thresholds to provide consistency and statewide comparability. 

    There is not yet an approved assessment framework in place to support California’s third SQO, which applies to the protection of fish and wildlife. Under the human health SQO framework, sediment sampling sites are assessed in two main ways:

    •  Chemical exposure analysis: Sportfish tissue chemistry data are compared to the advisory sportfish tissue contamination levels developed by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
    • Site linkage analysis: The linkage between site sediment contamination and tissue contaminant concentration is evaluated. 
    The framework features a three-tiered assessment process that provides capability to adapt the assessment to a wide range of situations. The framework also makes use of a food web bioaccumulation model to evaluate site linkage.

     Assessments using the framework will be focused around PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and chlorinated pesticides – two major chemical drivers of seafood consumption risk. 

    SCCWRP and its partners began conceptualizing pieces of the draft framework in 2005, and started developing the technical aspects in 2009 with the guidance of a scientific steering committee as the project came into sharper focus. A stakeholder advisory committee that included participation by SCCWRP member agencies also played a key role in shaping the framework.

     Final refinements to the framework, which were completed over the past year, included harmonizing tissue chemistry evaluation thresholds with OEHHA’s seafood consumption advisory tissue levels, completing a four-year test drive of the framework in the greater Los Angeles Harbors area, and refining the bioaccumulation model used to evaluate sediment contamination. 

    The State Water Board will solicit public comments on the draft framework through the end of 2017, and hold an informational public workshop on December 5, 2017 in Sacramento. The draft framework is scheduled to be considered for adoption by the State Water Board in March 2018. 

    For more information, contact Steve Bay.

    SCCWRP and its partners have developed a sediment quality framework that establishes
     a standardized technical definition of what it means to be in compliance with California’s
     Sediment Quality Objective (SQO) for the protection of human health in enclosed bays
     and estuaries. The draft framework was published as a SCCWRP technical report, above.

  • International expert panel convened to develop acidification thresholds for pteropods

    November 20, 2017: A 10-member panel made up of leading global experts on pteropods, or sea snails, convened at SCCWRP in September to develop consensus around biologically relevant thresholds at which these ubiquitous marine calcifying organisms are affected by ocean acidification (OA).

    During three days of deliberations, the international pteropod panel reached consensus on the thresholds at which various specific environmental conditions linked to more intensive OA in the California Current Ecosystem are expected to trigger specific adverse effects in pteropods and similar calcifying organisms.

     Pteropods, which depend on minerals in seawater to form their highly soluble calcified shells, are sensitive to changes in seawater chemistry, enabling them to serve as early-warning indicators for how OA can be expected to impact the health of marine ecosystems.

    The international pteropod panel is the first of three expert panels that will be convened and facilitated by SCCWRP and its partners over the next few years. Researchers’ goal is to use the consensus opinion of experts to develop an interpretation framework that coastal resource managers can use to glean ecologically relevant insights from the copious data they collect via chemistrybased measures of OA, including measuring seawater pH.

     During its deliberations, the pteropod panel agreed that the most relevant OA chemical parameter for assessing impacts to pteropods is aragonite saturation state, which reflects the concentration of a dissolved mineral called aragonite in seawater. 

    Additionally, panelists reached consensus on which key biological processes in pteropods – including shell dissolution, egg development and mortality – are critically impacted at specific aragonite saturations state thresholds. Panelists also agreed on the critical magnitudes and durations of exposure at which pteropods exhibit increasing levels of adverse biological effects, and identified data gaps and priority future research to address these gaps.

     Finally, panelists developed recommendations on how to apply their recommended biological endpoints to existing OA monitoring data and computer models that track and predict OA conditions. 

    A group of West Coast ocean modelers, including SCCWRP, is planning to immediately use the panel’s recommendations to interpret the outputs of a state-of-the-art, high resolution model that predicts which West Coast habitats and marine communities will be most vulnerable to the impacts of corrosive conditions. Coastal resource managers will be able to use this West Coast OA model to better protect and minimize ecological damage to vulnerable areas during critical periods. 

    The pteropod panel will draft a review article summarizing its consensus findings and recommendations that will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal next year. 

    For more information, contact Dr. Nina Bednarsek.

    An expert panel of 10 leading global experts on pteropods convenes at  SCCWRP in 
    September to reach consensus on biologically relevant  thresholds for tracking the
     impacts of ocean acidification on coastal  marine health. The experts, pictured with 
    SCCWRP staff who  facilitated the panel’s deliberations, traveled from as far away
     as Great Britain, Italy and British Columbia.

  • Bight ’18 kickoff brings together dozens of agencies

    November 20, 2017: A collaboration involving dozens of environmental organizations will examine how human activities have affected the ecological health of Southern California’s coastal waters during the sixth cycle of the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program, which officially kicked off in September at SCCWRP.

    Participants of the 2018 cycle of the regional marine monitoring initiative are considering featuring up to six distinct study elements – sediment quality, ocean acidification, harmful algal blooms, trash, microbial water quality and marine protected areas – that together will help paint a picture of regional ecosystem condition. 

    Bight ’18 participants are planning to repeat some of their previous regional monitoring efforts to document trends, particularly to sediment quality in the Southern California Bight. They also will ask new scientific questions that require novel measurements, testing of prototype technologies, and additional assessments that extend the program into previously unmonitored habitats. The program’s focus area encompasses more than 1,500 square miles of Southern California’s coastal waters. 

    More than 140 people representing nearly 80 organizations attended an all-day Bight ’18 kickoff meeting on September 14 at SCCWRP to begin fleshing out the management questions that the regional program will address. Potential questions were ranked and prioritized based on how environmental managers will respond once they obtain answers to these questions. At the meeting, more than 20 questions made the short list for consideration. 

    In the coming months, Bight ’18 participants will further refine the list of management questions and develop technical study designs that will ensure the program can get scientifically rigorous answers. Field sampling will begin July 1, 2018. 

    The Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program, which has been facilitated by SCCWRP since its inception in 1994, mobilizes Southern California environmental management agencies to collect data from across a much greater expanse than just their local discharge zones. Both regulated and regulatory agencies, as well as non-governmental and academic organizations, come together to collaboratively design the study and interpret findings. 

    Southern California’s environmental management community relies on the Bight program to better direct resources and to maintain focus on the areas and issues that are disproportionately impacted by human activities. 

    Planning and final assessment reports from the previous cycle of the Bight monitoring program, Bight ’13, are available online. For more information and to learn about becoming a Bight ’18 program participant, contact Ken Schiff.

    Participants of the Southern California Bight 2018 Regional Monitoring Program attend 
    the program’s all-day kickoff meeting at SCCWRP in September. Nearly 80 organizations 
    from across Southern California and beyond have committed to participating in the regional 
    monitoring collaboration, which examines how human activities have impacted the ecologica
    l health of Southern California’s coastal waters.

  • POTWs embark on study documenting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, genes in effluent

    July 31, 2017:

    SCCWRP and its four wastewater treatment member agencies have initiated a year-long study examining whether viable antibiotic-resistant bacteria – and the genes that code for antibiotic resistance – are being discharged into the environment following the wastewater treatment process.

    The study, which began in June, will track whether viable bacteria and genetic material are surviving treatment at 10 POTW facilities across Southern California, including an international plant at the U.S.-Mexico border. Influent and effluent samples are being collected quarterly at each wastewater treatment plant.

    The study’s goal is to develop a baseline understanding of how prevalent antibiotic resistance genes are in wastewater effluent at Southern California’s treatment facilities. If these genes are surviving the treatment processes that destroy most bacterial cells, this genetic material could be traveling via treated effluent into aquatic systems, where potentially pathogenic bacteria in the environment could be taking up the antibiotic resistance genes. In this way, antibiotic resistance could be conferred to bacterial strains that make humans sick – a phenomenon that research has shown can lead to multidrug-resistant “superbugs."

    The study also will examine whether differences in wastewater treatment regimens and effluent discharge practices across Southern California affect the viability of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes. This information will be particularly timely given that treated effluent in Southern California increasingly is being reused for water recycling projects, including direct groundwater injection.

    During the study, researchers will screen for three classes of bacterial pathogens resistant to antibiotics: vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaciae (CRE). Carbapenems are often the antibiotic of last resort against many life-threatening infections.

    Researchers will then use DNA-based methods to identify the antibiotic-resistant bacterial species and the antibiotic resistance genes in the influent and effluent. To determine which genes to target during this molecular analysis, researchers are partnering with the Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago, which has curated a large database of known gene sequences coding for antibiotic resistance. Argonne National Laboratory has conducted similar antibiotic resistance work in the Chicago River.

    Study participants have spent the past few months optimizing lab analysis techniques to ensure they can generate high-quality, comparable results across facilities participating in the study. The majority of the POTW facilities are scheduled to finish their first round of sampling by September.

    For more information, contact Dr. John Griffith.


    Bacterial conjugation, shown in this image, is one of the ways that bacterial cells can
    swap genetic material, potentially conferring antibiotic resistance to one another.
    SCCWRP and its wastewater treatment member agencies are tracking whether
    the genetic material that codes for antibiotic resistance is being discharged into
    the environment following the wastewater treatment process.

  • Bioassays show promise for CEC screening in SMC study

    July 31, 2017:

    SCCWRP and its partners have demonstrated in a proof-of-concept study that commercially available bioanalytical tools have the potential to cost-effectively screen Southern California waterways for the presence of bioactive contaminants of emerging concern (CECs).

    The two-year study, completed in June in partnership with the Southern California Stormwater Monitoring Coalition (SMC), examined the relationship between the results of the high-throughput cell assays and the results of a whole-animal screening test. In all, 31 stream sites across Southern California were sampled over a two-year period.

    The study found that one of the cell screening assays – the aryl hydrocarbon receptor assay – detected low to moderate levels of a group of bioactive contaminants known as dioxin-like chemicals across both urban and agricultural sites. A subsequent whole-animal screening test showed that these levels of bioactivity were not associated with cardiac malformations during early zebrafish embryo development.

    These findings are significant because SCCWRP and other experts have proposed using bioanalytical tools as a cost-efficient first line of defense for screening California waterways for bioactive contaminants, an approach that has the potential to reduce the frequency of whole-animal testing, which is more expensive.

    Thus, the study’s finding that cell assays are more sensitive than whole-animal tests is a seminal outcome, as it underscores the potential to use cell assays as an initial screening test, to be followed by whole-animal testing to ascertain whether the bioactive contaminants could be impacting organisms in the environment.

    SCCWRP proposed this multi-tiered approach to CEC screening in 2015, as part of a draft CEC monitoring framework intended to help water-quality managers more effectively narrow down the classes of CECs that pose the greatest potential risks to aquatic ecosystems. Since that time, researchers have launched multiple studies to evaluate the utility of the proposed CEC management strategy for statewide application.

    The outcomes of the SMC zebrafish embryo test are in agreement with previous studies on the toxicity associated with dioxin-like chemicals. When these bioactive contaminants are present at concentrations much higher than those found in the SMC samples, zebrafish embryos begin to experience developmental anomalies. Researchers are still working to link these biological impacts to relevant cell assay screening thresholds.

    The SMC study also explored whether the bioactive contaminants detected during the initial bioanalytical screening step could be correlated in a meaningful way with the level of urbanization of the study sites, as well as with the observed condition of the stream biological communities living at the sites.

    Researchers found that the biological condition of benthic invertebrate communities – as measured by the California Stream Condition Index co-developed by SCCWRP – correlated with the aryl hydrocarbon receptor assay responses. The poorer the biological condition at a given site, the more likely it was to have a relatively high bioassay response, although researchers cautioned that additional linkage studies are needed to confirm whether aryl hydrocarbon receptor-mediated pathways play an influential role in the observed biological degradation.

    The full study has been published by the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. For more information, contact Dr. Alvina Mehinto.


    A bioanalytical screening tool known as the aryl hydrocarbon receptor assay was used
    to screen water samples collected by the Southern California Stormwater Monitoring
    Coalition for the presence of bioactive contaminants. The assay had a proportionately
    stronger response – depicted above with progressively darker shading – in areas with
    more human activity, which indicates that the assay successfully detected bioactive
    contaminants at levels that correspond to what researchers expected to find, given
    various land-use patterns.

  • SCCWRP-developed CEC monitoring framework highlighted at State Water Board meeting

    June 02, 2017:

    State Water Board members explored multiple approaches being taken to improve CEC monitoring statewide during an informational meeting agenda item in February.

    Some of the presentations they heard at the meeting highlighted an adaptive management strategy developed by SCCWRP to evaluate the risks of CECs in aquatic systems.

    Two Regional Water Quality Control Boards – North Coast and Los Angeles – discussed the pilot studies they’re undertaking with SCCWRP in their respective regions to evaluate the utility of this CEC monitoring strategy.

    Initially unveiled by SCCWRP in 2015, the risk-based adaptive management strategy is intended to provide water-quality managers with an efficient, cost-effective way to zero in on the CECs that pose the greatest potential risks to humans and ecosystems.

    Through the pilot studies, water-quality managers will gain insights into whether the monitoring strategy could be effectively applied to aquatic systems across California, particularly water bodies with significant water-quality impairments.

    During the February 22 informational agenda item, State Water Board staff also briefed board members on the underlying research that SCCWRP and its partners are conducting to refine the scientific tools that are foundational to the strategy. 

    SCCWRP’s CEC monitoring strategy focuses on two emerging technologies that SCCWRP has been working on with collaborators for nearly a decade: 

    » Bioanalytical screening assays, in which engineered cell lines are exposed to water samples so that a potential biological response can be measured

    » Non-targeted chemical analysis, in which chromatography and rapid-scan mass spectrometry are used to separate and identify chemicals in complex mixtures based on physical and chemical properties

    These technologies have the potential to enable water-quality managers to screen a much larger universe of CECs than they can with existing, chemical-specific monitoring methods. Incorporation of these CEC screening tools could streamline existing monitoring workflows and make more efficient use of labor-intensive, time-consuming traditional methods, such as whole-organism toxicity testing and targeted chemical analyses.

    In May, SCCWRP is scheduled to brief regulators and dischargers from the Central Valley and Delta regions on the CEC monitoring strategy during a two-day workshop in Sacramento.

    And later this year, SCCWRP will reassemble an expert advisory panel that will help SCCWRP vet and help shape research to improve CEC monitoring in recycled water. SCCWRP assembled the initial statewide panel in 2009.

    For more information, contact Dr. Keith Maruya

    Next-generation CEC monitoring strategies that SCCWRP is working to test and 
    validate were described by State Water Board staff during a presentation to board
     members exploring the approaches being used to improve CEC monitoring statewide.