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OCNSMP A multi-year plan to address selenium and nutrient issues in the Newport Bay watershed
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Frequently Asked Questions

Why are Selenium and Nitrogen a problem?
What is Order No. R8-2004-0021 and how did it come about?
What is the Nitrogen Selenium Management Program (NSMP)?
Who is the Working Group?
What is the relationship between the County of Orange and the Working Group in regard to this project?
What is a groundwater-related discharge?


Q. Why are Selenium and Nitrogen a problem?
Selenium is a naturally occurring element that is necessary for life, but it is toxic at high levels and is unusual in that the difference between essential and toxic levels is relatively small. Selenium is a bioaccumulative pollutant, meaning that it accumulates in the food chain through uptake and consumption by plants and wildlife, and can cause adverse effects on fish and birds. There are different forms of selenium, some more harmful than others. Similar to selenium, nitrogen is an essential nutrient, but it can cause harmful algal blooms when nitrogen levels are excessive. Excessive algal blooms decrease dissolved oxygen in surface waters (referred to as eutrophication) and can result in fish kills.

In the Newport Bay watershed, selenium derived from ancient marine sediments in local foothills accumulated over the last several thousand years in an area known as the Swamp of the Frogs. This ancient swamp, though now drained and filled, has become an almost limitless source of selenium because of the high water table in the area. Virtually any activity that mobilizes groundwater to the surface has the potential to increase selenium contamination of surface waters in the Newport Bay watershed. During the 1980's and 1990's, large mats of algae were common in Lower and Upper Newport Bay. These extensive mats threatened beneficial uses by lowering dissolved oxygen levels and impeding recreational boating. The peak bloom of 1985-1986 resulted in a fish kill in the Newport Island area. Historically the major source of nitrogen in the watershed was runoff from commercial nurseries. Improvements in nursery operations have reduced this source, and the current primary source is most likely groundwater, which has received nitrogen from agricultural land uses.

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Q. What is Order No. R8-2004-0021 and how did it come about?

Until 2003, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) regulated discharges to surface waters that pose an insignificant (de minimus) threat to water quality through an area-wide NPDES permit. However, when this permit was renewed in 2003 by Order No. R8-2003-0061, the Newport Bay watershed was specifically excluded due to concerns that elevated levels of selenium and nitrogen in short-term groundwater-related discharges would not comply with established TMDLs in the watershed. Therefore, the Regional Board developed and issued a separate general NPDES permit specific to the Newport Bay watershed - Order No. R8-2004-0021 (Order). The Order acknowledges that while current groundwater levels exceed the California Toxics Rule (CTR) limit of 5 ug/L selenium, a feasible treatment technology does not exist to lower the levels in the discharges to the CTR standard. Therefore, the Order incorporates an alternative compliance approach by authorizing the formation of a Working Group and the implementation of a Work Plan to develop a comprehensive understanding of and management plan for selenium and nitrogen groundwater-related inflows in the watershed.

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Q. What is the Nitrogen and Selenium Management Program (NSMP)?
Order No. R8-2004-0021 for the Newport Bay watershed includes numeric effluent limits that may be difficult or impossible to meet since there are no feasible treatment technologies for selenium for short-term groundwater-related discharges. To recognize this problem, the permit allows for an alternative compliance approach that consists of implementing a Work Plan to investigate selenium and nitrogen sources and impacts as well as potential treatment or reduction methods. The NSMP is the effort by a stakeholder Working Group to implement this Work Plan.

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Q. What is the NSMP Working Group?
The NSMP Working Group consists of staff level technical representatives of watershed stakeholders that include state, county, and city agencies, water districts, and private entities that have agreed to fund and implement a Work Plan to address selenium and nitrogen groundwater-related inflows in the Newport Bay watershed. The Working Group was created in response to Order No. R8-2004-0021 regulating short-term groundwater-related discharges. Since the adoption of the Order in December 2004, the Working Group has met frequently to launch the compliance effort, known as the Nitrogen and Selenium Management Program (NSMP). As of October 1, 2005, the NSMP Working Group consists of eighteen (18) Members and three (3) Participating Members.

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Q. What is the relationship between the County of Orange and the Working Group in regard to this project?
The County of Orange (through its Watershed & Coastal Resources Division and Flood Control District Departments) is a member of the Working Group, because it conducts groundwater-related discharges just like the other stakeholders who are Working Group members. The County is also serving as the Chair of the NSMP and as the "lead agency" to coordinate the activities of the Working Group, including management of the consulting team (RBF Consulting, CH2M HILL and Larry Walker Associates) and other technical resources needed to implement the Work Plan.

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Q. What is a groundwater-related discharge?
The groundwater-related discharges regulated by Order No. R8-2004-0021 are:

  • Wastes associated with well installation, development, test pumping and purging;
  • Aquifer testing wastes;
  • Dewatering wastes from subterranean seepage; and
  • Groundwater wastes at construction sites.
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